I was inspired to investigate this question after reading “The Confidence Code” by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. What I was most curious about is how this may affect women negatively if proven true. Luckily, the opportunity to investigate this question was afforded me by way of a faculty research community at the college I have taught Communication Studies for the past 10 years.
Now, why does this matter to you? And who cares which gender communicates with more confidence? So glad you asked…it MATTERS and it matters greatly.
Bottom Line: How an individual communicates leads to judgements. How we show up, what we say, how we say it, how we carry ourselves and present our thoughts, influence what others think of us. Considering the gender differences of leadership positions in Corporate America, education, politics, the medical and legal professions, I’ve often wondered if the communication of confidence could be a contributing factor.
Background: There is plenty of research provided to support the idea that how we communicate matters greatly. My favorite studies have been done by the late Nalini Ambady, social psychologist from Harvard. Because of her work, we know that true feelings and attitudes can leak out of us via non-verbal language. We also know that tone of voice matters to surgeons who do not want to be sued for malpractice and for defendants who do not want to be found guilty by judge and jury. We know that teachers can reveal a hidden bias by nonverbal behaviors in class. Judgements, at times quite costly, occur after communication behaviors are observed.
If how we show up, leads to judgements, and judgements lead to opportunities (or a loss of opportunity), then how we communicate can absolutely dictate an individual’s potential to succeed. What if women do communicate with less confidence and therefore lose out on opportunities that would advance their professional life and personal relationships? I had to take a look.
Research: To investigate further, with the faculty research community, I developed a survey to measure confidence levels of women and men in a basic Communication Studies course at a midwestern community college. Students had to self-report how confident they felt in various requirements of presenting a classroom speech. Then, I observed each student presenting their classroom speech. I was curious how confident they felt and if those reported feelings corresponded with the observed communication behaviors during their speech, and what, if any, gender differences surfaced.
Much of the observed behaviors focused on the delivery of their speech. (Think of a speaker who feels confident; they would stand with upright posture, not hunching over the podium. A confident speaker would have eye contact with the audience throughout the presentation not overly dependent on their notes. They would have good vocal variation and not speak in monotone or have nervous verbal pausing.) I am still pouring over the details behind the results of my research however, I was surprised to see this general result:
Results: Women reported a higher confidence than men in various sections of their basic communication skills class, however, men delivered the speech with more confident non-verbal (physical) language. In essence, women might feel more confident but men look more confident.
And for my social scientists and academics, there are some obvious limitations to this field of inquiry, however, we all must start somewhere. The initial results certainly give me ideas in how best to help my college students but also have me wondering, what is the harm in all women becoming more aware in how they show up, physically and verbally in their professional settings?
Below are a few ideas to consider if you are looking for simple ideas to communicate confidence:
- Walk in to your next meeting, projecting confidence. Do not just walk in, hoping no one will notice, slumping in your chair and staying quiet. Take note of your posture, movement, how much space you take up, physically and vocally.
- List the ways you make your presence known in your next meeting. Brainstorm ways to offer a comment, provided a suggestion or respectfully challenge an idea on which you have an opinion.
- Interrupt your normal approach to your next presentation. Do something different, like open with a story to capture the attention of your audience immediately.
- Ask a trusted colleague to give you feedback on how you show up at work. (Too often, what we think is not what others experience and it is imperative to have that feedback to make any improvements.)
Any of these can influence how other’s judge you, and therefore the opportunities you may or may not be offered. I will never forget how nervous I felt as I waited to meet the decision maker of a large contract regarding presentation skills training for his team. I knew I could not show the nervousness so I adjusted my physical movements and verbal delivery to ensure I was to show up competently and confidently and a funny thing happened, I secured the contract.
So until further analysis of my original research, I am going to focus on the question, ‘what can women do to show up more confidently?’ Making small but intentional adjustments on how we show up, every day, is worth the effort knowing it will likely afford us an increase in positive judgements and opportunities that will lead to our future successes!