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By Rebecca Williams
This article is the first instalment of the “How to Communicate with Confidence as a Woman in a Leadership Role” blog series by Rebecca Williams. Read part 2 here.
The representation of women in leadership positions globally remains low. According to data from the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, only 33% of managerial positions worldwide are held by women and only 24% of senior leadership positions are held by women. Based on the data, we can estimate that it will take nearly a century, until 2117, to close the global gender pay gap and reach gender parity in the workplace at the current rate of progress. While this data is somewhat depressing, it doesn’t surprise me. In contrast, it motivates me to help more women close that gap.
Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten is motivated to close that gap too. She’s the Accelerator Manager at Lead F at the Vienna-based Female Founders, an online leadership accelerator for entrepreneurial women. We spoke about how women can communicate with more confidence as they step into and navigate the challenges of being in leadership roles. Here’s what came up.
The biggest challenge women face when it comes to confidence in a leadership role
“Women tend to have the idea that they don’t have all the required skills yet,” says van Holthe tot Echten. We’ve all heard the data that most women only feel confident applying for a job when they meet close to 100% of the qualifications, while men will do at roughly 50%.
“Many women in our programs say, ‘I’m in a leadership role now, but I feel like I still don’t have the skills —what it takes.’” —Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten
This imposter syndrome, caused by a host of things including many hundreds of years of gender bias and stereotypes, lack of role models, and lack of support and mentorship, continues to be a challenge for us to overcome. So what can we do about it?
Track all the things you’ve achieved and celebrate them
“It’s very important that we remind ourselves of all the things that we’ve done well,” says van Holthe tot Echten. Human beings, not just women, are designed to look for problems. We’re problem-solving machines. But when we’re always focused on what’s not working, we can forget about all the things we’ve already solved. This can be crippling for women struggling with imposter syndrome because there’s a sense you’ll never reach the finish line of “now I know what I’m doing.” The goal-post keeps getting pushed out by the ever-growing to do list.
You’ve got to train yourself to lead with the wins. Do a review of your week on Friday and list all the things you accomplished first. What went well? Only after you’ve done that do you have permission to list the things that still need to get done. When you meet with your team, focus first on what you did get done before diving into what remains. Get in the habit of celebrating what you’ve accomplished. Doing so boosts self-confidence, increases motivation, and improves mental health among a host of other positive results. It’s up to you to create these positive habits.
Meet interruptions and idea poaching head on
We all know it from experience: women are often interrupted more frequently than men when speaking in professional or social settings. This can lead people to not fully hear or comprehend what women are saying, which can get in the way of us being taken seriously.
“The women in our programs talk a lot about when they suggest an idea in a meeting and no one responds. Then 10 minutes later a male colleague suggests an almost identical idea. And everyone’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, great idea!’” — Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten
This is all too familiar, and it leads to us feeling insecure. “Does what I’m saying make sense? Did they hear me?” This self-doubt starts a vicious cycle, which causes us to speak up less and less if we let it get out of control. So what can we do?
Stand your ground
First, don’t be afraid to interrupt if someone interrupts you. How do you get your voice in there? You get your voice in there. There’s no “right” way to do it. Meet that interruption with volume and confidence. If someone interrupts you, name it. You can say, “I am still talking.” “I’m not finished.” “Please don’t interrupt me when I’m talking.” Then keep talking until you’ve made your point. Don’t let people get away with being rude just because you’re in a professional setting.
If you’re in a situation where someone repeats an idea that you said earlier but that no one responded to, call it out. Don’t get defensive, but do call it out that you said that idea earlier. You can bring humor into the exchange if that suits your style. For example, “Great minds think alike. I said that exact idea 10 minutes ago.” Imagine saying that with a smile too.
It takes some awareness of your own communication style to know when you’re being defensive in these kinds of situations. I believe there’s a real opportunity to show your strength by showing up with a little levity and a little humor to defuse what could otherwise be a tricky situation.
Use your body to communicate confidence
Body language is a powerful tool for both communicating and reinforcing confidence. “I make sure that my arms aren’t crossed, that I have an open chest, and I immediately start feeling more confident,” says van Holthe tot Echten.
“What I love about this is that you can trick yourself into feeling more confident.” —Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten
This phenomenon is known as “embodied cognition” and refers to the idea that the way we physically hold ourselves can influence our thoughts and emotions.
I coach women to stand up when they are presenting or running a meeting. I would never do these things sitting down because I know I wouldn’t feel confident. I wouldn’t feel energetic either.
Confidence is also about appearing passionate and enthusiastic—and passion and enthusiasm take a lot of energy. So if your energy is flat, you’re not going to seem as confident. Standing up naturally gives you more confidence because you’ve engaged the core of your body.
The bottom line is that confidence can take practice, especially if you’re new to a role and haven’t convinced yourself that you know what you’re doing yet. What’s important is that you keep believing in yourself, practice the good habits we listed here, and reach out for support when you need it. Remember, you’ve got this!
Watch the full interview with Elisabeth van Holthe tot Echten here.
If you struggle with communicating for impact, or just want to master this skill set so you can be more visible as a leader, check out our women’s group coaching cohorts at rebecca-williams.com.
Leadership Communications | Brand Storytelling Consultant
I’ve been helping people communicate for over 20 years. From helping companies find and tell their brand story to training teams how to give great presentations on camera, my background in theater, teaching, and performance inspires how I help leaders bring messages to life.
With 18 years’ experience teaching English as a Foreign Language on four continents, I specialize in helping non-native English speaking executives with leadership presence and communications skills.
My passion is using the power of story to create community, to build brands that make a difference, and to connect people in service of a joyful, creative, and more empathetic world.