The ABC of Successful Female Leaders

Assertiveness, Boldness & Confidence

Whilst the latest report from the Hampton-Alexander Review in November 2019 indicates progress is being made with regards to the number of Women on Boards and in leadership roles, this remains “too slow”. Research undertaken in 2018 by business incubation network Sussex Innovation, on behalf of its member company Momentum4, analysed a variety of factors that contribute to women’s underrepresentation in business and leadership; these included factors across a societal, organisational and individual level, indicating that there are many reasons why women struggle to break the glass ceiling.

The report found that confidence – or lack of – was the biggest psychological factor stunting female leaders’ career progression. Thus it is critical that women are actively encouraged to be confident in themselves and their abilities. Within this article, Sarah Jones discusses why women struggle with workplace confidence and how to increase their confidence using a simple ABC. 

Why do women lack confidence?

There are many contributing factors as to why women may lack confidence in the workplace. For
example, women who choose to have a career break, perhaps to have children, are not only faced with external barriers when they choose to return, but this time away from business can create a crisis of confidence over what may have changed since they left which may prevent them from entering the workplace at the same level they were previously.

Similarly, whilst many stereotypes about women are being debunked, other ‘traditional’ characteristics still prevail, preventing women from exerting confidence in the workplace. It remains commonplace for women who are bold, assertive or confident in business to be labelled as difficult or aggressive, even though they are only showing some of the characteristics that are revered within their male counterparts.

Striking up the right balance is difficult for women seeking to enter particularly male-dominated sectors and defy gender stereotypes. Empathy and listening are quickly becoming two of the most important leadership skills. These traits are often associated with stereotypical femininity and so some female leaders will try to avoid these in order to conform to more traditional leadership styles that have been successful in the past. But this can then remove some of the authenticity from their leadership, making a very fine line for women in business to tread.

How can women boost their boardroom confidence?

In spite of these challenges, women should not be afraid of using their ABC (Assertive, Boldness and Confidence). Being assertive does not automatically equate to being aggressive. There will be times in your career when you will need people to do what you say, for safety reasons for example, and thus assertiveness is critical. Clear direction to protect the interests of the team is not the same as being overpowering or hostile. However, creating this level of confidence can be difficult when many of the barriers that prevent it are internal and deeply ingrained. To unpick these thought processes we need to go back to how we talk to ourselves; this can have a dramatic difference in how we present ourselves to others. It can help to remember that everyone suffers from imposter syndrome at some point in their career, even those you may consider to be the most confident and successful people in their field. Both actress Natalie Portman and American businessman Howard Schultz have discussed their own experiences with imposter syndrome. We are much more likely to be critical of ourselves and our abilities; always focusing on the next stage rather than looking back at what you have achieved to date, but this period of reflection is fundamental to your progress. It can be a great boost to your confidence if you take some time to consider exactly where you have come from and how hard you have worked for your success.

It remains commonplace for women who are bold, assertive or confident in business to be labelled as difficult or aggressive, even though they are only showing some of the characteristics that are revered within their male counterparts.

There will be times when things do not go to plan and these are unavoidable. These events can be a big confidence knock if you take them as a direct reflection of your skills and ability. Quite often external factors outside of your control will have played a big part in the outcome of the task so rather than considering this a reason why you are not good at your job, frame it is as a learning experience for yourself and the business. As a leader, this provides a great opportunity to prove your listening abilities and get the team together to work out the best solution.

A further boost for your workplace confidence is to undertake additional training or boost your knowledge prior to returning to the workplace or putting yourself forward for the next promotion. Knowledge is power and can help you feel much more comfortable when contributing to discussions and projects with senior industry figures. Returnships and mentoring schemes are becoming increasingly common and provide that vital bridge between you and the next stage of your career through the shared transfer of knowledge. You could accompany them to networking events to increase both your network and confidence.

Boardroom confidence

One of the most common areas women lack confidence is in the boardroom and in meetings. As women remain in the minority, a room full of senior people can feel very intimidating to even the most seasoned of professionals. I have experienced this first hand as I was the only female on a board by my late 20s. Some quick top meeting tips include:

  • • Know the agenda – It may seem obvious but knowing exactly what will be discussed does wonders for your confidence. If the agenda hasn’t been sent around, ask for one so you can enter the room prepared as this is the best use of everyone’s time. Print this off and have it to hand.
  • • Preparation – If you are aware of what is going to come up, you can make a few notes to help you productively contribute to the discussions. Also, by knowing the agenda you will be able to research any topics coming up you might not be as sure about.
  • Questions – There is no way to predict exactly what questions are going to be raised in an organic discussion but do not let this faze you. It is much more authentic to take a deep breath and say you will come back with a solution than trying to make promises you do not know if you will be able to stick to.

It is imperative that we are not only removing the external barriers to women in leadership, but we are
also empowering them to get past the internal challenges, which can be just as powerful, and sometimes even harder to unpick.


Sarah Jones is an accredited coach, trainer and speaker specialising in career coaching, leadership, talent development and team productivity. After a successful career in PR, Sarah founded her coaching business, Sarah-J Coaching, to help people find purpose, meaning and direction in their lives and careers and support organisations with talent development and executive leadership coaching. Sarah is an NLP practitioner and holds diplomas from the Coaching Academy, accredited with the International Coach Federation, and Institute of Leadership and Management — the Personal Performance Coaching Diploma, and a Corporate and Executive Diploma (both Merit).

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