When it comes to girls (and women) and confidence, so much has been written and surmised, it’s a challenge to find a fresh perspective. In our schools, I know we have genuinely quiet girls who are sporting or academic stars yet stumble onto the stage to collect their awards looking embarrassed. I remember my own quiet daughter whose school reports always said ‘it would be good if she ever contributed in class’ and whose idea of torture was a social occasion with adults, when she would stare at her feet and be monosyllabic.
There seems to be a range – from unconfident to arrogant, with ‘justifiable’ or ‘appropriate’ self-confidence the ideal to aim for. One of our heads recently commented that on leaving school, ‘it never occurred to me that there was something I couldn’t do’. This is a great attitude to have, particularly if it comes naturally. Comparisons with classmates, or sisters are all too common, as is telling a girl, or a woman to simply ‘be more confident’! This is a surefire recipe for failure.
Confidence builds gradually through experience. In the words of Mae West, ‘A dame that knows the ropes isn’t likely to be tied up’. Helping others – whether it’s sixth formers mentoring younger girls, or working in the community to help the elderly or children – is a fantastic way to build confidence. Perhaps we shouldn’t be deploying the word ‘confidence’ at all. Isn’t this really about ‘conquering fear’ – doing something that frightens you and discovering that you can?
Imposter syndrome has a tendency to rear its head in new workplaces where assumptions about previous experience are frequently imagined but rarely qualified. The fact that women won’t apply for a job unless they tick almost all the qualities/experience needed, whereas men are much more likely to have a go, is another sad reality of modern-day professional life.
My solution, treat confidence like a box. Every time you do something you find frightening or difficult, you lay down another sheet of paper saying ‘I did it’. Over time, when you feel nervous about something you look down at the box and think 'I’ve done that’, ‘that doesn’t scare me any more’. What better way to soften your own landing?