On the heels of Hillary Clinton’s loss in the US Presidential election, it is easy for women in the US and elsewhere to feel discouraged, to have their hopes and their confidence shaken. That is understandable but don’t be too quick to give up hope. Regardless of where you live or which side you are on, one has to admit that on balance, 2016 has been a great year for women in leadership. Just take a look at this list of sitting female world leaders:
* Theresa May, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
* Kersti Kaljulai, President of Estonia
* Dame Patsy Reddy, Governor General of New Zealand
* Doris Bures, Head of the Joint Acting Presidency for Austria
* Tsai Ing-wen, President of Taiwan
* Aung San Suu Ky, State Councillor of Myanmar
* Hilda Heine, President of the Marshall Islands
* Katrin Sjögren, Premier of Åland (Finish External Territory)
* Beata Szydło, Prime Minister of Poland
* Bidhya Devi Bhandari, President of Nepal
* Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, President of Mauritius
* Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, Prime Minister of Namibia
* Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, President of Croatia
* Dame Marguerite Pindling, Governor General of The Bahamas
* Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, President of Malta
* Sheikh Hasina Wajed, Prime Minister of Bangladesh
* Michelle Bachelet Jeria, Executive President of Chile
* Erna Solberg, Prime Minister of Norway
* Dame Cécile La Grenade, Governor-General of Grenada
* Željka Cvijanović, Prime Minister of Republic Srpska (Autonomous Entity Within Bosnia-Herzegovina)
* Park Geun-hye, President, South Korea
* Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the Commission of the African Union (South Africa)
* Dalia Grybauskaitė, President of Lithuania
* Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Executive President of Liberia
* Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
* Hon. Dr. Dame C. Pearlette Louisy, Governor General of St. Lucia
…and those are just women who have reached the highest level of government. The list of women business leaders is considerably longer. For each of these women, reaching their current level of success was its own unique challenging climb. While they didn’t reach those heights on their own, there is one aspect of their success that they alone owned – their confidence.
Many women appear very confident, receive consistently excellent feedback, efficiently run challenging jobs, households and families…..and yet…..sometimes external appearance and internal feeling are at odds. Sometimes the strength and competency that we bring is overlooked by ourselves and by others. It is generally understood now that confidence, not just competence, plays a major part in success, and that many competent women hold back where they could certainly aim higher.
Too often women catastrophise, internalise, and apply judgmental “shoulds” to their actions
to the detriment of their confidence, according to Tracom Group’s White Paper on Self Confidence. Salaries in the US for professional people with high self confidence are $28,000 higher than people with low self confidence. In Helen Lerner’s article 5 Confidence Killers for Women (and how to slay them), she reports on her research that women in the US are most negatively impacted by perfectionism, micromanager bosses, disengagement, fear of failure, and uncooperative or critical colleagues.
Women do tend to ruminate, and if they don’t ruminate now they have learned to minimise rumination levels using their personal resources. If this resonates for you, I wholeheartedly recommend The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. This book delves deeply into the genetic and neuroscientific aspects of confidence. They discuss “rumination.”
The Confidence Code points out that we are products of nature and nurture, but that neither rules us. It is thought now that a mother running high base-line cortisol whilst pregnant can lay down neural programming towards anxiety in her unborn child. My mother was (and sometimes still is) the queen of rumination. She had a great deal to worry about actually, with a disabled child a year old, whilst pregnant with me. Also, if your DNA holds a short rather than a long serotonin gene you may have more of a propensity to lack a sense of status and self confidence. However, the good news is women can overcome all of these seeming disadvantages by rigorous pursuit of self-awareness, naming emotions, asking for help and taking charge.
Whilst I am told I almost always appear confident, the internal stability to match it has been hard earned. The important message coming out of all of this is, “Yes, She Can!” We are not at the mercy of our genes or our neural programming. We can change our habitual feelings and thoughts at their roots. We can learn to look and feel confident.
So, how can women create the habits of confidence? The key chemicals of confidence for women are oxytocin, serotonin, testosterone and oestrogen. We need to understand and boost levels of these to ensure our success.
* Boost oxytocin to increase support from networks: Women need to capitalise on our naturally high Oxytocin levels. Oxytocin is the chemical responsible for social bonding, trust and the motivation to create strong networks. It reduces cortisol levels – the threat chemical that can dominate our system and create worry and feelings of isolation. Women produce more oxytocin than men, and we can use it to create a strong support team. Just as an athlete forms a team of experts: masseur, psychologist, coach, etc., you need your support system: your masseur, your mentor, your financial whiz, your osteopath, your house cleaner, your best friends and your trusted colleagues. From a neuroscience perspective, it makes sense to place a high value on creating your own support team.
* Boost serotonin for an optimistic mind-set: If the inner workings of our minds churn out a pessimistic commentary on our performance (“you should do better” “you are not enough” “you are an imposter”), serotonin levels fall bringing down our self-esteem and sense of status. Emotionally, this can feel as though we are distant, shrinking or caving in whilst we have to outwardly perform in a confident way. To boost serotonin and self-esteem we need to effectively read our bodies and the emotional shifts inside us, understand the workings of our own minds, and be able to reframe events to allow us to feel truly confident and “okay” deep inside as we take on new professional and personal challenges. At Companies in Motion, we call this technique the “Chemistry of Optimism.”
* Boost testosterone for risk tolerance and understand the impact of oestrogen and progesterone for collaboration: Expansive posture and paced breathing technique contribute significantly to cognitive confidence and risk tolerance. Stretch and expand your body every morning into a “power pose” (big star fish shape) to boost testosterone; (I do mine whilst the kettle is boiling). Use expansive posture technique every day. Integrate 10 minutes of regular paced breathing pattern on your journey to work (e.g., whilst on a train, close eyes and follow the breath in and out in a regular pattern whilst focusing the mind on a mental rehearsal of the day ahead). Paced breathing helps produce a high performance chemical called DHEA which is a precursor of testosterone and oestrogen. Oestrogen gives women energy, optimism, mental clarity, sociability and self-confidence. What many women don’t realise is that on days 13-15 of an average monthly cycle, oestrogen and testosterone are both at their highest point, and so we are at our most competitively confident. (We also look younger as oestrogen plumps up the soft tissue and makes our features more symmetrical!) On days 16-19, all three chemicals hit a low and we will be especially susceptible to low confidence and rumination. On days 20-23, progesterone is at its highest making us a little more insular and team oriented and oestrogen levels rise again to 50% which gives us the sociability to mental agility to engage in good collaborative and creative work. We cannot always choose or schedule our activities with this in mind, but where possible, schedule tough negotiations or group wide presentations when testosterone and oestrogen are high. For post-menopausal women the management of testosterone and DHEA levels is important for confidence because oestrogen levels will have dropped very low. The power pose works brilliantly, and homeopathic DHEA is available too through a registered nutritionalist. The transition through menopause can be carefully managed with bioidentical hormone replacement therapy rather than large doses of traditional HRT. Post-menopausal women often experience a surge of energy, empowerment, wisdom and balance and go from strength to strength in their professional lives.
It is true to say that no one feels confident all the time. When my own confidence is shaky, Physical Intelligence techniques always enable me to regain ground. Having created a suite of techniques at my finger tips has been life saver, and I am delighted that more and more corporate women and men alike are powering their peak performance with Physical Intelligence.
So, let’s not tell ourselves too often that we lack self confidence! We need to capitalise on the zeitgeist of today and the growing success of women. In the UK, we are seeing an extraordinary change in our democratic landscape with marginal parties debating alongside the hitherto ‘main’ parties in our elections. In China, 51% of Senior Management positions are held by women and looking toward the future in the UK, comedian Sandy Toksvig has moved into politics by co-creating the Women’s Equality Party – not a party only for the equality of women but a party that makes its policy about the huge issues of equality for every human being. As their Facebook page states, “When women fulfill their potential, everyone benefits.”
Let’s harness all of these successes to help build our own confidence! Let’s allow those images of successful women to burn stronger images on our retinas and permeate our sense of belief, fully acknowledging our own successes – and moving forward with confidence!