The Confidence Myth: Why Women Undervalue Their Skills, and How to Get Over It

The Confidence Myth: Why Women Undervalue Their Skills, and How to Get Over It

by Helene Lerner


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, August 26


Not only do we need more female leaders at the top, but we need more women at all levels of business, government, and nonprofits to step up—there’s no time to waste. The problem, says Helene Lerner, isn’t so much that women lack confidence but that they misunderstand what confidence really is.

True confidence isn’t fearlessness; it’s having the courage to jump in even when your knees are shaking. Any woman who waits until she feels 100 percent confident before offering a big idea or asking for a raise or promotion will never get anywhere. Drawing on her own and other female leaders’ experiences, as well as on her survey of over 500 working women, Lerner lays out practical strategies for beating this confidence myth and overcoming obstacles like gender bias. The book features dozens of Confidence Sparks, simple but powerful exercises and techniques that can catapult anyone’s career to the next level.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781626562028
Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers
Publication date: 03/02/2015
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 720,414
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Helene Lerner is the CEO of Creative Expansions Inc. and the founder of She is also an Emmy-winning executive producer, an independent public television host, a Fortune 500 workplace consultant, and the author of twelve books. Lerner has produced more than twenty televised specials and received American Public Television’s MVP Award for her outstanding contributions to public television.

Read an Excerpt

The Confidence Myth

Why women undervalue their skills and how to get over it

By Helene Lerner

Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2015 Helene Lerner
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62656-204-2


Transform Fear by Stepping Up


I can't tackle it now; I'm not ready.


I can do it. What I don't know I will learn or delegate.

Our fears can prevent us from achieving great heights of success. They can distort reality and are often grounded in false beliefs, including erroneous messages due to gender prejudice. But when we step up and take action, we move through our fears.

Taking action in itself can bring up fear because we are moving outside our comfort zone. That's okay because being challenged means we are growing. Confidence is the ability to step into uncharted territory and take the next right action, to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Giusy Buonfantino, president of North America Baby & Child Care at Kimberly-Clark, faced several challenges when she came to the United States from her native Italy. It was all new territory for her, but she never let fear hold her back. "I worked with a few men who didn't seem to understand my accent," she confided. "What helped was for me to use hand signals to get my points across. I'd put my hand up at a meeting to express my opinion."1

Giusy didn't settle for the status quo, which solidified her position as an innovative thinker and a strong leader. Her advice to women is to keep offering suggestions: "I encourage women to share their unique ideas and not hold back. Voice your point of view. Don't be silent. Get your hand up in meetings," she advises.

David Bidmead, global leader of multinational client service at Marsh, added, "When you leave your ego at the door and stop trying to be the smartest person in the room, your opinions and ideas will be more appropriately valued and appreciated" (and that's applicable to both genders). He told me that to be heard, women should offer insights regularly rather than only expressing the occasional opinion.

I followed that same valuable piece of advice early on in my career at the New York Times. I was asked to cover for a senior leader at a top-level meeting, which came as a surprise to me. Those directly above me were out in the field, so I was asked to stand in for them. This was my first significant interaction with top management and a big deal. I hadn't had time to prepare.

The meeting was on the executive floor. As I got off the elevator, I was nervous. But as David suggested, I parked my ego outside the door and walked in the room. I thought to myself, Just be of service. Offer your help when needed.

I listened carefully to what was being said. The men in the room were discussing a problem and I had an idea, so I spoke up. Admittedly, my voice was a little shaky, but they listened attentively. As a result of that experience, top management began viewing me as having leadership potential.

How we limit ourselves

As women, we encounter gender prejudices all the time. Sometimes we may even accept the biases we encounter as true, unaware that we're doing so. For example, many of us have been brought up to play nice. We feel compelled not to rock the boat or appear confrontational, so we refrain from saying or doing what is necessary to get ahead.

But what if instead of trying to be nice, we respond authentically? What would that look like? For one, people would know where we really stand on the issues that are important to us. In addition, we would have more time to focus on making a difference and advancing our careers instead of trying to please other people.

The continually evolving workplace can be stressful and we need vigilance to monitor our thoughts and confront negative self-talk, what I call mad mind-chatter, that holds us back. I use this label because to think that we are not capable of achieving greater things is insane. In the Women and Confidence Survey we asked people what they would do to become more confident. Over half (58 percent) responded that they would "counter negative mind-talk with more affirming thoughts." We need to question the old ways of acting that limit us, and we need to adopt new behaviors.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg says that we hold ourselves back by giving in to self-doubt and "lower[ing] our own expectations of what we can achieve." She urges us to stop "pulling back when we should be leaning in."

Maybe you don't feel like you are ready to "lean in." You still have a lot to learn, and for now, it's better to stay on the sidelines. But no man or woman at any stage of his or her career is ever 100 percent prepared. That is the confidence myth. Now is the time to step up and question that negative belief that counsels you to hold back.

Jill Campbell, now COO of Cox Communications, was almost held back by mad mind-chatter that told her she was not ready to run a Fortune 500 company. When her first chance at the COO role came around, her self-doubt led her boss to think she didn't want the job. Jill's "moment of truth" came when her boss told her he was giving someone else the position.

"When Pat Esser [my boss] suggested that I didn't want the COO position and appointed someone else instead, he could have thrown cold water all over me. I had no idea that I had been projecting self-doubt," Jill shared.

"It worked out fine because the new COO was a huge supporter of mine," she went on. "He helped me get a coach, and I started to handle the issues that stopped me from advancing. I was raised to be 'nice' and not to brag, to play down my abilities. When the COO position opened up again, I knew I could do it. I went to Pat and told him that I wanted to be next."

Not surprisingly, the second time around Jill got the job. She did it by replacing her self-doubt with a more positive and honest appraisal of her abilities. When she believed in herself, she persuaded top management to do so as well.

When you receive bad news, self-doubt can be the first place you go. In these stressful moments, spot your reactions and use your emotional intelligence to hold on to your sense of power. A few years back, I shared the stage with a senior leader whose company was undergoing a global reorganization. She modeled how to shake off limiting beliefs for over two hundred women attending when she talked about a job she was up for but didn't get.

"I got the news on Thursday that a coworker was promoted instead of me," she revealed. "Of course I was upset, so much so that I took the afternoon off. For a few days, I was on the 'pity pot.' I let myself get angry, sad, and fearful. But then I stepped back from my personal disappointment. I realized he was a better fit for that job than I was. It made sense to move him up," she told us.

By showing her own struggle and explaining how she worked through it, this savvy leader gave the audience valuable insight into how to deal with upsets. She was able to assess the situation objectively and take action accordingly—she decided she needed to take her career in another direction and left the company a few months later.

I too have dealt with career upsets that have been difficult to handle, but by reaching out to my network, I was able to work through them. For example, when a strong supporter of mine unexpectedly did not come on board to fund one of my television shows, I was shocked. She delivered the news compassionately, saying we could revisit sponsorship next year, but I still felt so disappointed—I was barely able to get off the phone without my voice cracking.

I immediately called a friend who listened and supported me to move forward. I made many new business contacts that next year, but I also kept in touch with the sponsor. Sure enough, the following year she was on board again.

Do you hold a negative belief that creates self-doubt and keeps you from thinking bigger? Perhaps a parent, teacher, close relative, or boss judged you harshly, and instead of questioning the comment, you believed it. In the Women and Confidence Survey, 54 percent of the respondents who reported that they did not feel confident in the workplace said that "having a leader who micromanages and disrespects me" had inhibited their confidence. Neerja Bhatia, executive coach and founder of Rhythm of Success, advises us to stop identifying with the stressful judgments from our past. If we don't, what has happened will block us from getting what we want.

We must be vigilant and recognize our own mad mind-chatter, turning it around when it rears its ugly head. Re gardless of what has happened before, know that you can start to change what's happening now.

How thinking small gets in the way of big breaks

Mad mind-chatter can make us believe that we may not be qualified for a job when we are quite capable of tackling it—this mindset keeps us playing small. Why not aspire to something greater?

I was surprised by the stories of several senior leaders who admitted they didn't want to put themselves in the running for that next powerful position early on in their careers. All too many women seem to feel like they need to have a great number of skills in place to make a move, while men need far fewer skills to say yes. You've probably heard of the internal review at Hewlett-Packard a few years back that showed women within the company applied for open jobs only if they met 100 percent of the criteria listed; men, on the other hand, felt they needed to meet 60 percent of the requirements.

Some women didn't take on higher positions until they received encouragement. Cathy Kinney, former president and co–chief operating officer of the New York Stock Ex change, said it was her boss's belief in her abilities that persuaded her to take a leap. After being in the job for a few months, she questioned why she ever doubted her ability to do it. With smarts and passion, she ran the trading floor of over eight hundred people.

Another woman leader at a major consumer goods company shared this story: "When I had been at the company for two years, a position several levels higher became available, and I was asked to recommend people for the job. It didn't occur to me to put myself in the running. That night, the thought crossed my mind, Why not me? I submitted my name the next morning and got the job."

Kathy Waller, chief financial officer of Coca-Cola, advises us to take action despite our fears. She says, "Believe that you will do whatever it takes to be successful, even if you have to take a class or reach out to someone with more experience who can help you get up to speed."

If you aren't feeling sure about stepping up (remember, our take on confidence includes feeling shaky but moving forward anyway), use your nervousness to your advantage. "Nervous energy can help pull the greatness out of you—it makes you overachieve," says Jackie Hernández, COO of Telemundo. And as Debbie Storey, chief diversity officer of AT&T, put it, "My knees have been shaking my whole career."

When considering bigger jobs, let your prospective boss be the judge of whether or not you're right for a position—you owe it to yourself to take a smart risk. "People don't walk into a job with all the tools they need," Jackie reminds us.

Let's bust the myth that "I don't have the skills needed to take that job" and realize the truth: "What I don't know I can learn or delegate." Mobilize the support you need to take a bigger leap—pick one or two people you can call on for expertise and feedback, but also be your own mentor and ask yourself "Why not me?"

Speak up even when wobbly

Undoubtedly you are contributing and making a difference. But are you contributing as much as you can?

Sometimes the most frustrating thing about a job is having the talent and ideas to contribute but feeling like you can't give voice to them. In the Women and Confidence Survey, almost half of all respondents who reported that they didn't feel confident in the workplace attributed their lack of confidence to "feeling disconnected to my job because the work does not leverage my skills."

If you know the answer to a problem and you don't speak up, not only does the group suffer, but you do too. How do you know your solution won't be adopted? We may have a strong and reasonable fear of backlash, but sometimes we can hold ourselves back because of vague misgivings that do more harm than good.

Anne Mulcahy, the former CEO and chairman of Xerox, shared on one of my television shows her personal experience with not speaking up. When she was the chief administrative officer, the CEO at the time, Paul Allaire, was disappointed in her for not voicing her opinions at meetings. He was grooming her to take over the company, and she wasn't talking. Anne did some soul searching and her choices were clear: speak up or step down. She had been with Xerox for many years and knew what the company needed, so she began speaking up. The rest is history: Anne went on to lead Xerox powerfully as CEO.

Years ago, I was at a conference and the presenter wasn't addressing how gender prejudice filters down to all levels of an organization and the difficulty of changing that dynamic. That was the real issue at hand, but I seriously thought of not saying anything because I wasn't sure of the reaction I would get. Yet I knew it had to be addressed. Like Debbie Storey my knees were shaking, but I spoke up anyway. Changing the conversation in the room was more important than playing it safe.

How taking risks leads to big rewards

Too many of us play it safe to feel in control. Somewhere along the way, we started to equate risk with danger instead of opportunity.

In the survey data, respondents' comments indicate a high level of correlation between confidence and the willingness to take risks. Some sample responses were, "[Low confidence] often keeps me from taking risks that less able folks take," and "As I've grown older I have a greater belief in myself, and that has allowed me to be more adventurous in my life."

I have practiced risk taking throughout my career because I believe what I can contribute is important. That isn't to say that I don't feel nervous. I have come to accept that trying something new involves discomfort—and taking risks gets easier with practice. I also have reached out for support. My risk-taking ventures haven't always succeeded, but enough of them did. And even when my efforts did not work out, I learned something valuable from trying.

Ruthie Davis, entrepreneur and shoe designer to the stars, is a consummate risk taker, which has certainly contributed to her success. At UGG Australia, she repositioned the iconic sheepskin boot as "fashion" and started a craze across the United States. After holding several corporate jobs, she launched her own shoe line in 2006. Ruthie attributes her success to "thinking outside of the box, writing my own rules, and being brave."

Rosalind Hudnell, vice president of human resources, global director of communications and external relations at Intel, has taken risks since she was a young woman. She attributes this ability to the support she received from her mother and grandmother. Roz told me, "No matter what risk I took, I knew that if I really fell on my face, the worst possible thing that could happen was I'd go back home—which was a pretty cool place." Roz has tried to pass on her risk-taking confidence to her children by letting them know that she has their backs. Her positive attitude enables her to take risks in her career because, as she describes, if "I don't know anything about this [new project or position], I'm going to have to learn really quickly, and in any way I can."6

Why not go ahead and take a leap? Even if your efforts don't work out as planned, the lessons learned will make you wiser. Think like Sandra Dewey, executive vice president and head of business affairs for Turner Entertainment Networks and Cartoon Network Originals. She tells herself, "I'm going to make the best choice I can and if that turns out not to be perfect, I'll keep my eye on it, analyze it, and modify it as I go."

Letting go of perfection

We need to change the paradigm of what an effective businesswoman is and allow for expertise and imperfections to be part of the equation. The women I interviewed admitted to both. When we give up perfectionism, we are better able to step up, speak up, think big, and take risks. Yes, we have had to be twice as good as our male counterparts as a result of our late arrival into the workplace. But no one can keep pace with a standard that can never be achieved.


Excerpted from The Confidence Myth by Helene Lerner. Copyright © 2015 Helene Lerner. Excerpted by permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

CHAPTER 1: Transform fear by stepping up
CHAPTER 2: Lead with presence
CHAPTER 3: Win with honest feedback
CHAPTER 4: Create power parameters
CHAPTER 5: Stand out and attract sponsors
CHAPTER 6: Trust your inner compass
1. 30 Days of Confidence Sparks
2. Women and Confidence Survey: Methodology and Results

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews