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“You’re just treated like you don’t know what you’re talking about.” That’s how Paula Stone Williams describes being a woman in a business meeting.
Reverend Williams has a unique perspective on the way we interact with men and women in business. Paula Stone Williams used to be Paul Stone Williams.
Her transition opened her eyes in a way that’s illustrative for the rest of us.
Williams says the biggest difference between living and working as a man and doing the same as a woman is how much confidence she’s lost.
She explained in a Washington Post profile that the shift was gradual. As she settled into life as a female, it dawned on her that her “expertise was not going to be appreciated as it once was.”
As she describes it, Williams had always been confident as male. “I was taught that I had the ability to control a room. And when you assume you’re going to be taken seriously, to a certain extent you’ll be taken seriously. You don’t lose things overnight.”
Her experience gave Williams some insight—or some opinions at least—about how we wind up with a confidence gap between men and women.
“We teach our sons to be confident; we teach our daughters to be perfect.”
Striving for perfection works well for girls in grade school, high school, even in college. After that, Williams says, it begins to backfire.
“They end up valedictorian. All is fine. And then they get out into the first job and a position opens, and there’s four requirements, and they have two of the four, and they say, ‘Well, I can’t apply for this, I’m not perfect.’ And a guy comes along and has one of the four and says, ‘Yeah, I got this.’ And gets the job even though he’s half as qualified.
That “I got this” assumption. It has everything to do with confidence, doesn’t it?
How do you teach confidence anyway?
There are some hints in the way Rev. Williams describes herself as a man and as a woman. “I’m tall. I dress in a way that causes people to say, ‘Oh, she might know what she’s talking about.’ I speak up for myself, most of the time, pretty quickly.”
It’s a bit of a circle, vicious or otherwise, this confidence thing. The more we appear confident, the more people treat us as if we know what we’re talking about. And the more they treat us that way, the more confident we are.
Tall, we can’t do much about.
Height is undeniably an advantage when it comes to commanding a room, and it’s one of those attributes we either have or don’t.
Knowing that it helps to be tall though, one thing we can do is take up space. That means whether you’re standing or seated, your feet are flat on the floor, your spine is erect, your head is straight up and down over your shoulders.
Your shoulders are back, and your chest is open. Your hands are apart, not folded in your lap. And you’re breathing from your belly to support speaking with a strong voice.
That all contributes to the appearance of confidence; it also creates an inner shift, so we feel more confident too. (If that sounds a little too woo-woo, give it a try. And let me know how it goes.)
What about dressing in a way that makes people think we know what we’re talking about?
Unless you’re talking about how to hit a golf ball, build a campfire, or change the oil in your car, professional dress will get you there.
Post-COVID, things seem to be a little, or even a lot, more casual. Still, business clothing contributes to an aura of self-assurance.
And then there’s sounding confident.
It’s not only speaking up for ourselves quickly. In fact, sometimes, talking more slowly and deliberately conveys a certain confidence. The quality of your voice, the pace and tone, make a huge difference. You’ll find some quick tips here.
If we practiced those strategies ourselves and taught them to our girls, we might see a real change in the confidence differential between men and women.
And, of course, I’m curious about your experience, although it’s likely not as, well, both-sided as what Williams has been through. The idea that trying to be perfect gets in the way of confidence—that resonates, doesn’t it?
One thing from WaPo’s interview with Reverend Williams bothered me. She says she’s been surprised and disappointed that women don’t empower each other. “They see each other as competition,” she says. “I don’t get it: I’ve had more conflict with women in seven years as a woman than I had in 50 years as a man.”
My experience has been different—increasingly so, as time and professional life have gone on. You and I have talked about this before. I’m a big proponent of what the women in the Obama White House called amplifying each other’s voices. I believe we do, and I believe we should.
I don’t think I’m alone in that either, but again, your mileage may vary. And I’m curious whether you see women mostly competing or cooperating in business conversations.
You can add your experience in a comment here.