Closing the Confidence Gap

It seems odd to think that gender biases still exist in the 21st century. Women are less likely to receive leadership positions or own their own businesses, and are still, on average, making less than men nationwide. Grace Killelea wants to change all that. Killelea, a 30-year veteran of the human resources field and founder of Half the Sky Leadership Institute, discusses how women can begin to break down these barriers and reach the pinnacle of any profession.

Killelea recently spoke with Diversity Executive. Following are her edited responses.

What is this “crisis of confidence” that is affecting women in the workplace? How can it be overcome?
The statistics are staggering: according to Forbes magazine, while women make up almost half, or 46.9 percent, of the modern workforce, “40 percent of large companies have no women on their boards and only 5 percent of startups are owned by women.”

To highlight this example, let’s look at Amy, a hard-working, highly competent, innovative and dedicated employee with ambitions to get promoted for an incredible vice president position at work. Amy is a “go-to person” and knowledgeable in the workplace, well-liked among her peers and colleagues and a strong team player with great leadership potential. Throughout her career Amy has focused on learning all she needs to know and rarely misses a day. She is a devoted worker — first to arrive, and putting in long hours both at and away from the office. In addition to her dedication at work, she is a busy mother. During meetings she usually has the right answers but hesitates to speak up if she’s not asked directly. She often finds herself problem solving behind the scenes for others.

What Amy doesn’t know, though, is that she doesn’t stand a chance for the promotion. Why? Nobody is thinking about her. She lacks confidence, a strong professional “brand” and hasn’t yet learned to ask for what she deserves. Amy hasn’t built alliances, and sadly isn’t even aware of the information she’s lacking, because she lacks awareness of how critical these things are and how to go about changing it for optimized career success.

But there is hope and, within her, Amy “can get here from there” She needs to build a “confidence ladder” out of this role and go about learning how to put the rungs together. Part of her problem is her lack of awareness about opportunities. Thinking that working hard is enough, Amy has not communicated her interest in being promoted, thinking someone will just notice her hard work and efforts and reward her for them. She finds out someone else was picked for a role she would have been perfect for, but didn’t know the opportunity existed. Amy is one of her company’s biggest assets — and her own worst enemy. The great news is she can course correct, right now, right away. You can climb the confidence ladder.

What are some of the ways women can move from competence to confidence?
Being very good at your job is critical. I want to point out the necessity of recognizing that your confidence and your competence are equally important; that your ability to do the work is valuable, but if you are unable to lift yourself up and ask for what you want it may be an issue. Your confidence matters, and women need to learn this skill. You don’t have to worry about looking arrogant. Confidence can be very positive, and it allows you to shine a light on your ability. Being competent alone is like doing work in a room without any light.

Confidence is about turning the lights on so people can see what you are doing. For me, it is turning the light switch on in your own life. So why would you work in the dark if you have the ability to turn your own light on. At the end of the day you are the CEO of your own life. We spend too much time worrying about being a beacon as opposed to finding out “what am I doing to illuminate and create my own power” — your power will lift others for sure, but you have got to be able to say, “I’ve got this!” and to know that you are more than the sum of your parts. If you have had a challenging background, how do you lift yourself and trust your knowledge and expand what you do to new people and opportunities? A lot of that is belief. It is not one thing; it is auditing yourself and putting a light on your best skills. Confidence is attractive and it multiplies; it’s what we all want.

What is the downside of “nice” for women? Does this apply to men as well?
Girls are socialized from a young age much differently than boys. For girls, and eventually women, being nice is important. We are not supposed to think of ourselves first or brag, because it’s considered impolite. Men, on the other hand, are taught to be more assertive and aren’t as focused on being nice, not considering the implications on others to the extent that girls do. Our self-image is based too much on the reflections of how others perceive us, as opposed to our personal reflection. We need to look into our own mirror and see ourselves for how we want us to be. Men have been conditioned to do such a thing, and don’t beat themselves up mentally the way we do. As in the case with Amy above, we certainly are our own worst enemy.

Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post, claims that, “Women still have an uneasy relationship with power and the traits necessary to be a leader. There is the internalized fear that if we are really powerful, we are going to be considered ruthless or pushy or strident — all those epithets that strike at our femininity. We are still working at trying to overcome the fear that power and womanliness are mutually exclusive.” Men, on the other hand, are supposed to be powerful and pushy if necessary.

In your 25 years of coaching and mentoring experience, what are the biggest steps that need to be taken for someone to go from being a good leader to a great leader?
You can get the job done and still not be a great leader. How your present yourself and getting results are what matter. Are you presenting yourself with confidence? What is your mojo? My golden rule is, “If you can’t hide it, decorate it.” So much of executive presence is weighted by confidence and appearance, and it matters!

Take the time to conduct a realistic self-audit. Are you presenting yourself in the best light? One of my favorite expressions is “fake it till you make it.” In other words, “Suit up and show up.” Start where you are. If you need to start building your confidence and your brand it is not too late. If you do not believe in yourself, then no one else will.

In my 35 years as an HR executive and executive coach, I have developed what I like to call the Four R’s for Success: relationships, reputation, results and resilience. By applying these, women become stronger, greater leaders.

Are there some people who simply can’t be motivated?
I think there are people who choose not to be motivated. There are absolutely people who regardless of the opportunities or motivators presented to them are so critical and unwilling to make a change. Not everyone fits in every culture, and so people are so invested in being unhappy they become blockers. These people often “quit and stay” — taking up critical headcount in organizations. Great leaders try and shift these people, but when they can’t they make the decision to change that person out of the organization.

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Diversity Executive. He can be reached at