Overcoming the Confidence Gap

By Ashley May

It’s the 2019 ABA Women’s Leadership Forum, and keynote speaker Susan MacKenty Brady of Linkage Solutions wants to make a point. She ask the audience: “Raise your hand if you know your next career step.” A few hands lift in the air, but by no means all.

“That’s typical,” she says. If she had asked the same question to a room full of men, experience tells her that the proportions would be swapped: most men by default would raise their hand to say they know their next move (even if they don’t).

At this year’s forum, a slate of speakers in banking and business circle around the big, perennial questions: how do women excel and advance in the workforce, what systems could change, what networks are strong, what is the vision. But each conversation also reaches down to the individual level: If all barriers were erased for you to advance in your career, do you know what you want to do? What does “having it all” mean to you? As Brady puts it, today we’ll acknowledge that systemic barriers are real, but “we’re going to talk about ourselves,” and ask what responsibility women have for advancing themselves in their careers and beyond.

Brady—the author of Mastering Your Inner Self Critic—hones in on one particular aspect of self-criticism: disgust. Working from the assumption that what you think and feel drives what you say and do, she describes disgust as the voice in the head that is critical of oneself and others. It tells a person that she is not enough and drives her either to judgmentally put someone else down or put herself down in what Brady calls a “shame attack.”

In these moments, she says, a woman who has mastered her self-critic will recognize what is happening and “return to center,” refraining from making a request, seeking to repair, or speaking until she is resting again in the knowledge that she is enough just as she is. For those with a strong bias for action, this is difficult, but Brady testified to the power returning to center has had in her own life as a business leader, mom, and wife.

Self-criticism isn’t the only challenge to thriving. Brady describes several other hurdles that are especially important for women to overcome: identifying biases, building clarity, a comfort with articulating your skills (and why you are fabulous) and making an ask of another person.

During the forum, Brady was joined by three female executives who have thrived in different industries. She asks each woman to identify two things: their superpower and their kryptonite.

Kim Saunders, president and CEO of the National Bankers Association Foundation, goes first, explaining that her superpower is faith in a God of love who not only can, but will act for good. Susan Goldberg—the editor-in-chief of National Geographic—talks about grit, a doggedness to get things done. And kryptonite? Shelly Johnson, EVP for finance and strategy at Salt Lake City-based Zions Bank, names one undoubtedly common to many: doing too much. In each conversation, the women surface the importance of not only recognizing that you have a superpower but finding a way to overcome self-doubt and embrace and articulate it to other people.

Regarding building confidence, Goldberg adds: “Nobody feels 100% ready for the next step.” And in many cases, a woman executive might need to take a risk on her own career, to be willing to fight through fears in order to learn and grow. This experience of self-doubt isn’t unique to banking or journalism. Betsy Fischer Martin, a former Emmy-winning TV news journalist who now runs the Women’s Politics Institute at the School of Public Affairs at American University, has surveyed women on their views on running for office. What do women identify as their reasons for not pursuing leadership in public service?

At the top of her list: “Women have to jump a higher bar or do more to prove themselves than men do.” Fischer Martin relays how this translates into a mood where women who could run for office shy away out of concern that they are inadequately prepared. She has developed a program at American called We Lead that trains young women for public life and political action.

It’s this willingness to develop skills and bridge the confidence gap—to apply for that next job, even if you have self-doubt—that contributes to more women assuming positions of leadership. Shelly Johnson challenges the audience to “be the change that you want to be in your bank.” With the help of one another, and a dash of risk, change is within reach.

Ashley May is managing editor of Philanthropy magazine.