Mary Civiello

How women can narrow the 'confidence gap'

April 22, 2014: 3:36 PM ET

Tips from an executive communications coach.

By Mary Civiello

Gateway to success

Gateway to success

FORTUNE -- In a new book, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know, two high-profile TV journalists, Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, say women are less confident than men even when they are equally competent. They cite studies that suggest this lack of confidence is getting in the way of more women getting ahead. The authors have seen it in themselves and in interviews with powerful people.

As a communications coach for the last decade, I'm not surprised. I've not only seen it, but I've asked women why to help find solutions.

In the last year it seems every other week there is an article or study or survey about executive presence as a challenge for women. Executive presence -- looking and sounding like a leader -- is often a euphemism for confidence. Businesses don't approach me to help an executive because he or she lacks confidence, but because they need to "polish their presence." Nobody wants to acknowledge that their leader lacks confidence. Indeed, most often I've found they are confident in the job they do -- they just don't look it or feel deep down that they deserve success.

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In my decade of coaching top executives, this is far more often the case with women.

For instance, I once worked with a well-educated executive who was dealing with her fear of speaking. When I pressed her about what exactly she was afraid of, she said she feared people would think she is not smart enough. This irrational fear was making her stiff, formal, and unemotional when she needed to emote to promote her organization's good work around the world.

And within the last year training high-potential women at several financial services firms, leaders identified two main communication challenges: First, they said women don't ask for reviews as often as men, and men were afraid of offering feedback for fear of women getting emotional or defensive. Secondly, they said women don't sit up front and participate like men. The communication challenges were holding women back. In the session, I asked the crowd for reaction. One young woman said it's hard to squeeze in or speak up in a man's club. Another said she doesn't participate because she's afraid they'll dismiss her and her ideas if she didn't have all the answers.

So how can women start feeling more confident?

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I suggest clients look at a FedEx (FDX) ad -- the one where two guys say the same thing at a conference table, but the second guy is confident. The first, more junior guy floats his idea as a question, his voice goes up at the end of the statement. (Young girls listen up. That's UP speak.) As he speaks, his eyes dart around the table, he's crunched over leaning on his elbows, and he looks disheveled. The second man sits up, slightly forward. His voice goes down at the end of his thought with conviction. He looks distinctly at a few people at the table vs. scanning. The only script difference is that he leads off with a line, "Okay, how 'bout this ..." Then he pauses, and that reels in attention.

Easy enough, but here's how women can do better:

It's the way we look and look

In a decade of coaching, I can count on one hand the number of men who have been bothered by the way they look on camera, and let me assure you it's not because they all look so good. Women on the other hand cannot focus on the coaching if they feel they don't look their best. This is all understandable. It's one of the reasons I don't miss being on TV at the crack of dawn. Visually, we have more clothing and hair choices than men, and we have long been judged on our looks no matter what the job and how well you do. Ask Hilary Clinton.

Then there's the way we look, the way we see. Women tend to take in more than men. In The Female Vision: Women's Real Power at Work, Sally Helgesen and Julie Johnson note that women possess "broad spectrum notice." We notice the emotional reactions to an idea around the conference table, allowing us to gauge support. But that also means women are more likely to get thrown off by the one person who isn't buying what they're selling vs. a man who doesn't see or care what that guy thinks. Women are pleasers and multi-taskers. This can be a disadvantage when it comes to confidence.

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The prescription in both of these cases is training yourself to freeze out your frown lines as well as the guy who is frowning and focus on positive people as well as your purpose. In a study featured in the Harvard Business Review, researchers found that executive presence can only be improved if women focused not just on their style but also on their purpose -- their reason for communicating.

Speak up, but avoid up speak and squeak

Women have a larger vocal range and when nervous tend to get high-pitched. Studies show people think lower voice tones sound more confident. After all, men have been the model for leaders for years. The fix here is recording yourself and practice using the lower range of what is normal for you. It worked for former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and can work for you too!

Don't hold back too long or serve up too much

Women tend to hold back at the table. Like the woman at my financial services seminar, they fear they don't have all the facts. Recently I worked with a C-suite woman new to a business. She admitted she hadn't spoken up at executive meetings because she wanted to wait until she had more information. It had been two months. I suggested that she was being too cautious, too modest. She had years of related experience in another large organization. Remind them, I said, and chime in. She did.

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Then, once women open up, they can be too wordy with too many qualifiers. "I think. I know there are a lot of people who have opinions more valuable than mine." Get out in the traffic and take the credit. Or in the conclusion of the Confidence Code: Take more risks and care less about pleasing and perfection

But before women get too down about an uphill battle, I suggest we think again about the aforementioned challenges:

  • Pleasers
  • Perfectionists
  • Broad spectrum notice
  • Cautious/risk averse
  • Modest

Now, all of these tendencies can also be huge positives in short supply in corporate America. In The Female Vision, authors say more performance evaluations need to embrace and reward these traditional female strengths. So the bottom line, there are two factors to solve the crisis in confidence: Women need to lean in, and businesses need to look into revising performance criteria that value qualities naturally possessed by half the world -- qualities the world needs now.

Mary Civiello is an executive communications coach who works with leaders at some of the world's largest businesses and not-for-profit organizations, as well as high-profile startups. She is also author of Communication Counts: Business Presentations for Busy People. Previously, she was a reporter and anchor at NBC in New York. 

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