In a well-known article about the number of conference speakers across 23 countries in the world, men outnumbered women. Is this because women don’t have as much to say? Is this because men are more confident speakers? What’s going on?
It is my belief that men and women have the same fears about public speaking. Will I dry up? What if I make a fool of myself? What happens if they find me boring? But they may have different ways of dealing with those fears. Men often lean in any way. Women often lean out. Men will have a go even if they only feel 50 % confident, women will wait until they feel 100 % confident.
Let me give you an example. At a networking event, I went to many years ago now, there was a gap in the schedule and the organiser decided to fill it by giving a guest the ‘gift’ of time to tell the whole room of about 75 people about their business. They drew names out of a hat filled with business cards of all attendees. The first name out of the hat was a woman. She dithered, said she hadn’t been prepared to do this, giggled nervously, and sat down. The next name out of the hat was a man. He also said he hadn’t prepared but did it anyway. Was he any good – well, he wasn’t the best speaker I have ever heard but the point is that he did it. And he benefited from 74 people hearing about what he did. And the woman – missed out. This isn’t a one-off sadly in my experience.
There are men and women who both miss out on opportunities to speak without a doubt. But there is a reluctance on the part of women to push themselves forward even when they know they should. Why is this the case?
There is a lot written about Imposter Syndrome. That inner voice and critic that says you are only a step away from being found out and exposed for being the fraud you truly are. But I came across an article recently from Harvard Business Review – Stop telling women they suffer from Imposter Syndrome – which gave a slightly different take on it. It suggested that women are more likely to suffer from Imposter Syndrome not because they were women per se but because they don’t see as many people like them, doing what they do. That their actions, decisions and conversations don’t get the same validations as those of men doing similar things. Both men and women might doubt what they do but as the article suggests
“As white men progress, their feelings of doubt usually abate as their work and intelligence are validated over time. They’re able to find role models who are like them, and rarely (if ever) do others question their competence, contributions, or leadership style. Women experience the opposite. Rarely are we invited to a women’s career development conference where a session on “overcoming imposter syndrome” is not on the agenda?”
Both men and women might naturally experience some nerves or qualms as they start something high profile or new or exciting – and speaking in public qualifies for all of those things- but maybe it is what happens next that determines their response to this. If we get validation, then we push through. If we don’t (because there aren’t many others to see or hear who are like us, then it is harder to lean in and easier for others to label this as ‘suffering’ and ‘syndrome’ ( which sounds slightly medical and pitiful rather than a perfectly normal and understandable response which can be handled, not treated)
In my work with women speakers, I seek to combat this in several different ways.
For starters, I don’t really find the word ‘confidence’ very helpful.
Nearly everyone I work with (men and women) at some point will talk about confidence, mainly wanting more of it) but that tends to reiterate and reinforce the old Imposter Syndrome again. Instead, I work with them on building resourcefulness for their speaking. If you feel less than resourceful at any given point, then it opens options to go get some resources. (That could be as simple as breath or posture, or it might be a framework to use to express your points)
Secondly, I occasionally run women-only speaking workshops. A safe space to learn for sure, but it is also
a place where there are lots of other women reinforcing and reiterating the validation we need to see.
Finally, I teach a method of crafting and practising speaking which isn’t based on delivering a perfect speech, but a personal, meaningful, and ‘human’ speech. When we seek to be perfect, then we may well be professional but resemble a robot. When we are happy that it might not be perfect, but it will be uniquely and wonderfully you – warts and all- then we can give our whole selves to the talk and connect personally with our audiences.
I have been having conversations with professionals from a variety of different fields and there are some changes in the air: more women standing up and into the spotlight. And the more we can do to support them (not cure them of a syndrome or tell them to be more confident) the better.
We need more speakers who can speak powerfully, clearly and engagingly. We need more women speakers who can do that so that more women can do that.