Women and Leadership: The Quest for Self-Confidence

A New York Times article last fall reported on the persistence of gender bias in the sciences.  A byproduct of differential experiences in the sciences is that they may undermine women’s confidence.  As a consequence, women in the sciences may be less likely to pursue opportunities for advancement within their institutions.  (see Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds)

In the widely read Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead, Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg (2013) discussed the challenges women face as they strive to “sit at the table” — play leadership roles in complex organizations.  In Chapter 2, she noted that “even now, I am a long way from mastering the art of feeling confident” (p. 37).  She concluded the chapter with the following observations:

No one accomplishes anything all alone.

But I also know that in order to continue to grow and challenge myself, I have to believe in my own abilities.  I still face situations that I fear are beyond my capabilities.  I still have days when I feel like a fraud.  And I still sometimes find myself spoken over and discounted while men sitting next to me are not.  But now I know how to take a deep breath and keep my hand up.  I have learned to sit at the table. (p. 38)

Sandberg’s book offered a host of documented examples of the barriers women still face today as they attempt to climb up the corporate ladder (or jungle gym, her more useful metaphor!).  I think the popularity of the book highlights a perceived recognition that many of us long for words of advice and encouragement, along with fresh new images of women as leaders.

Another recent New York Times article spotlighted Elizabeth H. Blackburn who, with Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, won the 2009 Nobel Prize for ground-breaking work on telomeres (see Charting Her Own Course).  Her recent work promises to shed important light not only on the relationship between stress, DNA and mortality, but to offer potentially very powerful biomedical applications that could transform the practice of medicine.  She clearly has earned a “seat at the table” as a scientist.  With respect to the theme of “confidence,” the following quote from Blackburn warrants attention.  Describing her more recent interdisciplinary research activities beyond the laboratory, she stated

I would have been a little afraid to do things, because my male colleagues wouldn’t have taken me seriously as a molecular biologist…[But now] Being senior enough in the field, having enough solidity, I don’t feel afraid of being marginalized” (2013, D6)

One wonders how many very capable women have not been able to pursue new directions in their work, given the long road many face to achieve seniority and therefore security (and perhaps “self-confidence”) in their fields.

In a related vein:  At my own institution, a new group — the Women’s Faculty Caucus — has formed to discuss issues of particular concern to faculty women.  This lively group has organized several business meetings and social gatherings.  Similar groups meet at other institutions.  This might be a good day to see what resources are available in your own organization.  Just as bias, isolation and marginalization erode self-confidence, collaboration with like-minded others has the potential to strengthen it. – EdProf

References

New York Times, September 24, 2012

Bias Persists for Women of Science, a Study Finds

Science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than students with the same accomplishments and skills, a new study by researchers at Yale concluded.

New York Times, April 9, 2013

Charting Her Own Course

A Nobel-winning molecular biologist explores the connections of emotional stress, health and DNA.

Sandberg, Sheryl (2013). Lean In: Women, work and the will to lead.  New York: Alfred Knopf (written with Nel Scovell).

Further reading

Maitlin, M. W. (2012). The psychology of women.  Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.  [See pages 164 – 168 for a straightforward discussion of gender differences in self-confidence.  Recommended readings cited on page 171.]

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