The Confidence Playbook: How Women Can Rise Despite the Rules that Hold Us Back

Not speaking up when we know the right answer. Not negotiating to advance our professional journey. Not accepting the credit for having the brightest idea in the room. Not having “that” conversation because we hate confrontation.

We have all experienced and/or have witnessed it. What, exactly, am I speaking of? Lack of confidence manifesting itself in a myriad of ways such as:


Confidence defined is the belief in one’s abilities and judgment, a feeling or consciousness of one’s powers or of reliance on one’s circumstances.

What We Know

Females of all ages have been scammed. In other words, we’ve been sold a false premise, straight down the rabbit hole of lack: lack of confidence, lack of self-esteem and, the greatest of them all, the lack of belief in ourselves.

According to Amy Cuddy, Ph.D. a social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor, young children are born with an equal amount of self-confidence. They behave similarly. By the time girls reach puberty, they lose their voices to be appealing to males. They stifle their opinions and authentic selves to pretend to be what they think boys want them to be.

Thus begins the self-defeating mindset and behavior that impedes our way.

In their book, The Confidence Code, journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman discuss the shocking disparity between how confident men and women feel about themselves. “To our surprise, as we talked with women, dozens of them, all accomplished and credentialed, we kept bumping up against a dark spot that we couldn’t quite identify, a force that was clearly holding them back,” Kay and Shipman stated in The Atlantic article discussing their book. “There is a particular crisis for women — a vast confidence gap that separates the sexes.”

One example that Kay and Shipman noted is the data gathered by Marilyn Davidson, Emerita Professor of Work Psychology at Manchester Business School in the UK: each year, Davidson asks her students how much money they expect to earn and how much they think they deserve to earn five years after they complete their education. Female students routinely reported at least 30% less than their male counterparts did.

As Kay and Shipman note, “Compared with men, women don’t consider themselves ready for promotions. They predict they’ll do worse on tests, and generally underestimate their abilities. Another striking example is that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less than men do. This is but one example of how women subconsciously do not ask for what they want or even what they know they deserve.

Similarly, a Columbia University study found that men routinely over estimate their abilities by at least 30% while women routinely under estimate theirs. “We hold ourselves back because we doubt our ability to succeed. Striving for perfection, leaving no room for failure sometimes, will always leave us lacking and kill women’s confidence”, Katty Kay wrote in The Confidence Code.

How Playing by the Rules Hurts

In her New York Times-bestselling book Playing Big, Tara Mohr shared that early on in her work as a career coach, she noticed that women who faced the greatest challenges professionally were also the ones who had been outstanding students”.

Tara documented, “The same behaviors that were essential for academic success were holding women back in the boardroom. Western educational systems train students to prepare carefully and to complete assignments they are given, to invest the time into research and homework to learn the correct answers; to pay attention to what authority figures want and provide it.”

Those “good student” behaviors are productive while in school though once women transition into the professional world, they undermine women’s ability to move ahead.

According to Carol Kinsey Goman’s Forbes article Is Your Communication Style Dictated by Your Gender?

the “good student” mentality — “believing that individuals in decision-making positions will notice females’ hard work and positive results, and [then] promote them”, isn’t how the working world works at all. Moreover, as Dr. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, and Rachel Simmons, the co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, noted in an article published by CNN, “Indeed, if life were one long grade-school, girls would rule the world”.

As females, we often attribute success to external factors

One key takeaway from The Confidence Code is that, while men tend to credit themselves and their innate abilities for their accomplishments, women tend to marginalize their successes by crediting them to external factors, such as luck. How many times have you credited an accomplishment to some force outside of yourself? That you were “at the right place, at the right time”. Consider owning your achievements before you give away that personal power.

Psychology Today’s article The Growth Mindset Works, But Not for Everyone highlights more of Carol Dweck’s research on why ability doesn’t necessarily lead to confidence in those skills: “bright girls, when given something to learn that was particularly foreign or complex, were quick to give up…. Bright boys, on the other hand, saw the difficult material as a challenge, and found it energizing. They were more likely to redouble their efforts, rather than give up.”

Why is there a disconnect between ability and confidence? According to Dweck, we are what we think; it is our perception of our abilities that is the self-fulfilling prophesy. According to the same article, “bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe they can develop ability through effort and practice.”

Actionable Change Strategies

  1. Give Yourself a Break; Practice Self Love. As females, we are our own worst critics. We are prone to “persist and plow through” to meet our goals. Instead, consider pausing for a moment each day to acknowledge yourself and all that you bring to the party, your gifts and talents. Calendar in two minutes in the morning and the evening to look in the mirror and say, as great spiritual teacher Louise Hay would say, “I love you, I really love you”.
  1. Own Your Achievements. You have worked hard to arrive to where you are, professionally and personally. Carve out some quiet time to write down the last three to five achievements that you are proud of. You don’t need to list “cure cancer” as a qualifier. The list may include making your first oral argument in court, delivering your first presentation before a live audience. Whatever “it” is, write it down. Then, review the list and tell me you don’t feel a pop of self-confidence. Remember, confidence in action bets confidence in feelings. This is the equivalent of having the courage to step outside of your comfort zone and knowing you will be fine. The more you practice this, the more your confidence will grow.
  1. Challenge your inner critic. We all have one. You know, the voice that says “you’re not good enough”. This negative self-talk does nothing but tear down our sense of self-worth and confidence. My colleague and friend Teressa Moore Griffin authored an amazing book LIES That Limit: Uncover the Truth of Who You Really Are (via Amazon) that I cannot recommend highly enough. Might I also recommend you watch Former First Lady Michelle Obama’s extraordinary Note to Self (YouTube) It is very uplifting and affirming.
  1. Dig Deep to Identify the Fear. As educated and accomplished women, we sometimes find ourselves in the double bind ( Damned if we do, damned if we don’t stand in our integrity, regardless of the circumstance, especially in the workplace. Common fears among women are fear of failure (so what if you do, what is the worst things that will happen?), fear of what others will think and how you will be perceived (those who matter most, accept you unconditionally). Hundreds of professional women I have coached over the decades have painfully confided that they often feel paralyzed by fear. They experience feelings of guilt and disgust with themselves that they intellectually know they are capable yet when they are in uncomfortable and/or perceived threatening situations (being challenged by a male supervisor, for example), they just crumble.

To build your self-confidence, you must confront these fears to overcome them. Not a simple assignment, but you can take steps today to include the following:

Recall a situation in which you experienced fear and did not perform at your best. Summarize the situation in writing, then below jot down the various ways you can address it differently in the future. I encourage you to write a script of the exact language you can use. Identifying the fear, outlining corrective steps and language can diffuse the fear so you are prepared for next time (there’s always a ‘next time’). Using positive language such as “my position is xxx”; “With all due respect, I disagree”; “Please do not interrupt me while I am speaking”, all are affirmative terms to interject.

  1. Create a Vision Board that visually represents what you want to attract more of into your life. We are not just hard-working lady bosses. We are complex human beings that can be vulnerable and strong, at the same time. We are daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, friends, caretakers, etc.

Too often in the workplace, which may dominate our lives, we lose track of the other aspects of our lives that matter to us. Have some fun with this assignment. Invite a few friends over, bring out the magazines, scissors, glue and maybe a bit of vino. Creating a Vision Board (I have three as my life continues to evolve) will provide visual representation of your goals, which can be a confidence booster. Try it and let me know you make out.

Here’s one of mine:

  1. Positive Affirmations. No, this is not “woo woo”. There is scientific proof that saying positive affirmations daily can have beneficial effects for building a greater sense of self. The self-affirmation theory (Steele CM 1988) begins with the premise that people are fundamentally motivated to maintain their self-integrity or global perception of adequacy. I recommend repeating each affirmation 10 times, and that you create three affirmations reflecting areas for growth and improvement. Practicing these positive affirmations can be very empowering. For more information on creating your affirmations, see
  1. Invite the right people in. We all know these people: “Debbie Downer”, “Gossipy Gail”, “Victim Veronica”, “Toxic Tamara”. We work too diligently to build and maintain our self-confidence to allow anyone, perhaps including biological family members, to tear us down.

A favorite quote from the esteemed Dr. Maya Angelou often rings in my ear “When we know better, we do better”. This one takes conscious practice. Try out setting boundaries of the ‘negatives’ in your life with a trusted friend. What will you say the next time you feel the ‘negatives’? Practice, practice, practice. Only positivity is allowed in your sacred space.

  1. Self-care practices. Exercises such as journaling, engaging in self-regulating breathing, physical exercise, meditating and (or especially) regular spa services can be uplifting to build the sense of self-confidence. Honoring our mind and bodies is an affirming message with which to gift ourselves.
  1. Recognize that perfection is an illusion. It does not exist. If you can move yourself past the impossible standard of perfection, your self-confidence will soar. Remember, done is better than perfect and pending.
  1. Putting Practice into Action. Invite your tribe to join you in some of these uplifting, confidence-building exercises. If you are not already involved in a women’s networking group, identify one near you (Google and asking your colleagues can help here). I know, joining groups is not for everyone though the benefit can often outweigh the effort. At least, invite a few women from different areas of your life to gather from time to time.

The BIG Question: What are you willing to do?

Nothing builds confidence more than stepping right into the middle of the next scary situation and emerging intact. Whether it’s proving to yourself that, yes, “I can do it” or merely “getting through” the next interview, meeting with the bully partner or confronting head on a lingering fear, once you stare it down out of sheer will, you will surely rise more powerful and confident than you can imagine by using some of the tools above.

Be kind to yourself; start with a few small steps today from those I’ve outlined and move forward. You can do this!