Unpacking “The Confidence Myth”

As published in Sybil Magazine, May 2015

As published in Sybil Magazine, May 2015

(#5 of a series of 12 articles on ‘Unlocking Your Sacred Power’)

Is there a single factor preventing women from owning their full power?  According to some recent articles the answer is yes.  According to these authors the glass ceiling is kept in place by self-doubt or lack of confidence.  But is it?

As a transformative leadership coach, I see the toll that self-doubt can play on the lives, dreams and influence of women.  And I know it’s critical that we each take responsibility for transforming limiting beliefs and for taming over-active inner critics.  But attributing the glass ceiling to a single factor serves to cloud the issue.  In a subtle way, it blames women for their self-doubt.  And, as a result, it helps to keep the glass ceiling in place.   There’s a larger story at play here.  Trying to fix ‘self-doubt’ in isolation is like trying to fix a symptom while ignoring an underlying medical condition.

A few years ago, when hired to teach a university course on The History of Women’s Art, I chose to focus on why so few women appear in art history books.  Often it was assumed that women weren’t bright enough, creative enough, gifted enough, or devoted enough to take their places alongside names like Michelangelo and Raphael.   But as the art historian Linda Nochlin explored in her essay “Why Have there been No Great Women Artists?” the truth was much more complex.

The absence of the female Michelangelo was related to systemic issues – social and role expectations, issues of exclusion, and lack of training and mentorship opportunities for women.  Truth be told, there were plenty of examples of women’s art in the areas where women were allowed to practice – such as flower painting.  Women just weren’t allowed to be members of the ‘Academy’ and so they weren’t allowed to train, practice or excel in the more prestigious areas of art such as history, religious or mythological painting.

We’ve come a long way, thankfully.  Increasingly women are admitted to graduate programs formerly reserved for men.  Women are now doctors, lawyers, scientists and company executives.  We’re contributing to changing traditional workplaces, and are striking out to create our own visionary businesses.  We’re also at the forefront of challenging old models of success and proposing alternate ways of working.  But systemic limitations continue to both support the glass ceiling and to erode women’s confidence.

So when I hear that ‘self-doubt’ is responsible for women’s lack of success I’m uncomfortable.  I admit that it’s up to us to change the limiting beliefs that keep us stuck.  But it’s also time to open up the conversation and look at the bigger picture.  What is the real root of those limiting beliefs?  We need to heal and transform the root, not simply fix the symptoms.