Episode 74: On Confidence

You see a man in a job interview and he answers off the cuff of his sleeve, he doesn’t think, oh my gosh, I might not able to do that, or could I do that.
— Denise Barreto
The times when I’ve had to ask for things it’s seemed so hard, it’s almost unthinkable that I would be able to ask for something and that I deserved it.
— Stacey Vanek Smith

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time, we look at that invisible issue that runs beneath so many women’s lives: confidence – or rather, the lack of it, and what that means for our careers.

“You see a man in a job interview and he answers off the cuff of his sleeve, he doesn’t think, oh my gosh, I might not able to do that, or could I do that?”

And why it can be so hard for women to value what they bring to the table – especially when they’re negotiating…

“The times when I’ve had to ask for things it’s seemed so hard, it’s almost unthinkable that I would be able to ask for something and that I deserved it.”

Coming up – two women from different backgrounds on cultivating confidence and a sense of self-worth.

 But first, this episode of The Broad Experience is brought to you by MM.LaFleur. It’s a fast-growing, woman-run clothing brand committed to helping professional women "live with purpose and dress with ease." You’ll hear more about them a bit later in the show.

I’m a bit obsessed with confidence, mainly because I’ve never had much. You can see it written in my school reports right from when I was 7 up to 18 – lacks confidence. I’ve cultivated more of it over the years, but that voice in my head that tells me I’m not good enough, that I can’t do something – it’s never really gone away.  And I know it’s sometimes held me back at work.

Denise Barreto is the opposite of me. I first talked to her last year for a show I did on starting your own business. And I wanted to talk to her for this show because I remember how confident she seemed during our conversation. She struck me as having an enviable amount of confidence. Denise runs her own business near Chicago. It’s called Relationships Matter Now and it does strategic planning and marketing.

She says the confidence I hear comes from the fact she feels so competent at her job. So has she never heard that internal voice bringing her down?

“So when you’re talking about that voice, I don’t hear that voice when I’m going to speak in front of a crowd or when I’m walking into a room of executives or I’m walking into a room of elected officials and I’m about to tell them what they need to do – that voice is nonexistent. Perhaps in other situations, like I’m right now in a rough point in my marriage, and that that I hear voice isn’t about my competence or whatever it’s about, am I enough for my husband, have I done enough for him? Am I beautiful enough for him to keep his, you know I mean? Those kinds of things, but I think that’s a very different conversation, and I would say both on a personal and professional level all those things start when we’re children and the things that we’re told and we believe deeply about ourselves start when we’re children.”

Denise’s mother died when she was four. She and her sister were raised by her dad. She knows she missed a lot in losing her mother. But she says one advantage of having her father as the main caregiver was that she saw self-assurance in action every day.

“I gotta say first of all when you grow up with a man at the head of the household I think that’s a whole different dynamic than women. Men seem to be bullheaded confident right? A guy, there’s never a stretch thing for a guy, a guy will go for it. And so I do think that had a big impact on me - my dad wasn’t super-educated but he got out there and he had a really good job and when things didn’t work out he figured out a way to take care of things, so I think that influenced me a lot, and I gotta say losing…I think mothers are very nurturing and they kind of build into the emotional piece of a child, and I missed that, so I think one of the things I’m learning as an adult is that I just never felt things. I may have felt them but I just didn’t allow myself to because I was following the model of my dad, who, I don’t know if he ever felt things because there was no indication of that.”

Her dad faced a lot of challenges growing up, and as an adult…

“My dad grew up in the southern part of the United States under Jim Crow. So my dad is not your picture of confidence, OK. I would see white men humiliate my dad at the gas station driving through Indiana as a kid, and think to myself there’s no way anyone’s ever going to talk to me like that. So there are a lot of intersections and layers that we’re talking about. But you know my dad was born in Alabama in the 1930s…that’s not exactly a very confident time for black people in this country. So the confidence and instilling of my sense of confidence and self all came from him being a man.”

And not specifically a black man.

Last year I read a book called The Confidence Code. And there’s a part where an African-American lawyer, a woman, comments that a lot of black women her age went into the adult world with quite a bit of confidence. Because she says they’ve nearly all been raised by mothers who worked, women who supported families, sometimes single-handedly…so they don’t question the need to get out there and lead.  

I wanted to know if Denise saw that with the women she worked with…

“Most of the work I do I’m the only black woman there, it’s few and far between that I see a lot of black women, but I say definitely the confidence is there and I think too that black women have a tremendous shell that we put up because again this narrative that we hear that we’re not worthy of compassion and feminism and that goes way back in America even to slavery times, I mean we have always had to be strong and that has cultivated the ‘angry black woman’, and I think in general many of us do a lot of protecting ourselves and a lot of wall building in order to keep from letting folks in.”

But maybe there is that layer of confidence that lets you do things and not get eaten by self-doubt.

Still, she says, it’s rare she encounters any woman with quite the self-belief of the average man.

“There’s no stretch job for a guy, when he goes for a job and I hear this all the time because I do a lot of organizational development. You see a man in a job interview and he answers off the cuff of his sleeve, he doesn’t think to, oh my gosh I might not able to do that, or could I do that? He declares he can do that and figures it out later, whereas we are so much more realistic, we are more tuned into our talents and we’re more self-aware than they can be.”

But that self-awareness can undermine us as we question ourselves and sometimes miss out on opportunities.

Denise isn’t someone to let an opportunity pass her by. And she wants her teenage daughter to have the same can-do attitude. 

“I like when people say I’m pushy, that means I’m persuasive, right? So how do we help our girls take those things and not have them be albatrosses around their neck but really building blocks for their confidence. Because that’s a word that’s great on your resume, right? Persuasive?”

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Stacey Vanek Smith is a correspondent for NPR’s Planet Money podcast and she’s also a friend of mine. We used to work together at another show. She’s highly accomplished but you’ll never hear her say it. She says self-deprecation is always how she’s dealt with her insecurities.

She first noticed the gulf between her attitude and that of some of the men around her when she was at journalism school.

“I mean I tended to be in the much more in the female camp of a more modest approach…I’m doing this internship, I’m just getting coffee…but I like the work they do…and I’m also working on this piece I’m excited about for class. And the guys would be like, oh, yeah, I’ve got this amazing internship and I’ve got this amazing piece I’m doing in class. And I remember thinking – I was almost embarrassed for them. But as I went on in my career I noticed that that actually works. It works. When people are like, ‘I’m awesome’, even if it’s so obviously coming from a place of deep insecurity, people believe it – it’s shocking to me. People can get very far in their careers on that kind of confidence and chutzpah.”

Meanwhile women (and men) who think it’s more seemly to let their work speak for them can find they’re missing out on promotions or projects.

Stacey’s seen this happen several times over the years. A young guy with bags of confidence – or at least bravado – comes in and competes for a job with a woman who already works at the company. And the woman may be more qualified, but the bosses often overlook her…

“’Cause it’s like the woman feels sort of dreary and unexciting, she’s been there so many years plugging away…the guy is the lightening bolt – he’s so exciting! And I will see these sort of swaggery, confident guys blow in and take these jobs. And it’s hard. Like it’s a hard thing to watch.”

And that swagger isn’t something she can emulate. When she’s going for a job or a promotion she cannot bring herself to be that guy, talking up her work.

“I tend to also focus on how hard I work, and not on how glorious the product is, because again that feels concrete to me, it feels like something I can prove, whereas the gloriousness of the product feels subjective. I feel like I can’t back it up.”

I think that’s the crux of the problem right there. That when it comes down to it, women like us don’t have that core belief in our value that seems to come naturally to so many men. Stacey has to muster every ounce of determination to ask for more at work…

“The times when I’ve actually asked for things it’s been really hard, it’s almost unthinkable that I would be able to ask for something and that I deserved it was very hard for me to get my head around. And I usually have had to in my career get to a place of feeling …anger or resentment before I feel like I can ask for something…I don’t feel comfortable in myself to say I feel like I deserve this.”

AM-T: “No, I completely agree. But it was you who encouraged me to ask for a raise in a certain job situation that I would never have asked for. Because I was feeling so low and despondent after not getting this job. You were the one who said to me, they still want you, you should ask for X amount, which was 20% more than what I was getting…and if you hadn’t told me that I wouldn’t have gone into that conversation…and asked for exactly that, and I was ready to walk if they didn’t give it to me…and they did. And I never would have done that if I hadn’t had that conversation with you.

“I don’t think I have trouble seeing the value of women around me…and it’s interesting that you bring this up because I feel like I have to have some kind of crazy leverage to ask for something…I have to feel like I’m ready to walk, I don’t feel like I can just ask for something because - I have to have another job offer or feel so unhappy I’m ready to leave. I feel like, I don’t feel like I am enough leverage, I guess, I feel…like I have to say, ‘or else, dot, dot, dot’.

I had a male colleague who spent all his time griping about raises. I’m sure he made a lot more money than I did. On the one hand I found it irritating and I’m not sure it was effective to the degree he was always talking about how he deserved a raise. On the other hand he really thought he deserved a raise all the time, he really thought he deserved more money all the time, and I was jealous of that.”

Me too. Because if you truly believe you deserve it you can ask for it with no qualms. Otherwise, asking is fraught with anxiety.  

And as Denise said near the beginning of the show, this confidence thing goes back to our childhoods. A lot of this comes down to nurture and the messages we get from the world around us about what women ‘should’ be like.

“I grew up in a very traditional house, my mom’s a homemaker, my father had a super demanding job, and I grew up in Idaho which is a very traditional place. And a lot of my aspirations as a young girl were to marry someone who was really successful…not that I didn’t have my own ambitions, I wanted to be a writer, but I always imagined the ultimate success being basically to be Kate Middleton, to marry someone really awesome and have that sort of success by proxy. To me what that says is like, I saw men’s success as important and of value and women’s value as finding a man who was successful…of course ironically enough I’m not married and have actually..."

AM-T: “…had a really good career…”

“Yeah, I was thinking of the Gloria Steinem quote, so many of us have become the men we always wanted to marry. That was going through my head. I mean looking back on the kind of kid I was, I was super ambitious, super ambitious. I worked really hard in school, I wanted to get out of Idaho, I wanted to see the world, I’d always had those ambitions. But I think if you’d asked me directly I probably would have denied it.”

And years later, long after she dropped the supportive wife idea, she’s still a bit ambivalent about her worth…

“Do I think I’m an equal worker? I do, I really do. But I think there’s part of me that doesn’t think that…there’s part of me that thinks mmm, maybe I should get paid a little less, just a little…I think if I were on an absolute equal footing with a male colleague who had the same years of experience, everything, if I found out he were making say 10% more than me I’d be annoyed, but I wouldn’t be outraged.  If I were making 10% more than him I would be, like, very puzzled. I think that would bother me more.”

It’s complicated.

One thing that builds confidence on one level is simply becoming good at what you do.

AM-T: “But it’s not that kind of confidence problem a lot of us suffer from, it’s the much deeper thing about your value in the world. And I don’t know how you get over that. You can gain confidence at a task by doing it over and over again and that’s a lovely thing to have cultivated…but that ‘who do you think you are?’ voice inside…I don’t know how you usurp that voice.”

“God, that’s so true. It is the ‘who do you think you are’. And I have to say, the way I handle that now is I get a little bit excited when I notice something like that…basically if I notice that something is making me uncomfortable, like I feel like I’m not speaking up enough, or I’m not enough part of a project…or I’m not getting promoted fast enough or paid enough or whatever it is, there is something thrilling about that discomfort, there is something exciting to me, because once it’s not sitting well, then eventually I know I’ll do something about it…I feel like that is this really beautiful tension point, that discomfort – like wait, I think I’m worth more. Like if you really did believe you should be paid less, it wouldn’t bother you to learn that you were paid less…but the fact that it bothers you, that is the beginning of change I think.”

Still, she sometimes asks herself, what would life be like if she believed in herself more…

“The real danger of the who-do-you-think-you-are message is that, it’s not like, oh, I wonder if I deserve that, should I ask for that? It’s the stuff you don’t even think of asking for. It’s the stuff that feels so far out of the realm of reality or the realm of anything you’d ever get…that’s what I sometimes think about.

Like I wonder, if I had no questions about my value, like I wonder what I would be doing? Would we all just be like Richard Branson? Maybe, I mean maybe. There’d be so many airlines…”

Stacey Vanek Smith. Thanks to her and Denise Barreto for being my guests on this show.

As usual, you can comment on this episode at The Broad Experience.com and on the show’s Facebook page.

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Thanks to Erin McMahon for her help with this episode.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. See you next time.