Where does confidence come from?

I’ve always thought it was a little simplistic to encourage women to simply be more assertive to make it to the top. Of course, being confident is important for career progression, but what causes lack of confidence in the first place? I spent much of last week’s parents evening with daughter one’s English teacher discussing where self esteem comes from. Daughter one is, in my [unbiased] view, utterly fabulous. She’s witty, very bright, tremendously well informed and generally lovely. But she feels she is constantly teetering on the precipice of failure. She puts a lot of pressure on herself. Where does that come from? I recognise it in myself too. The striving to be ‘perfect’, to do everything to the utmost degree. Have I passed it on [and if so, where did I get it from?] or is it something that girls imbibe as they grow up – the need to prove themselves again and again, the feeling that they are never quite good enough?

I have not been surprised by the recent revelations about sexual harassment at work. The possibility of sexual harassment or worse is something you are generally aware of as a woman in any walk of life – whether at work, in social settings, on your way home or in many cases at home itself. What I have been shocked about is the sheer number of serious allegations because people don’t speak out about it – and for very understandable reasons. I have not experienced serious sexual harassment at work. In my 20s I worked mainly with women and one rather amazing man, by then in his 80s. At school and university I took avoiding action and became anorexic. Who knows what is behind anorexia and it is certainly a complex illness, but for me in part it was a wariness about becoming a woman and all that that entailed – the sense of being treated not as a person, but as some kind of commodity. I fear that that has only become more pronounced nowadays, but perhaps in a more generalised way. Even the men are now easily swiped away.

What I am trying to say is that telling a woman to be confident and assertive in the absence of an actual culture that fosters that, from early childhood upwards, is a bit trite. The same goes for being a working mum. Despite progress towards greater equality, there is still this pervading sense that you have to apologise somehow for having had the temerity to take time off to have children and for wanting your kids to grow up to be halfway sane, happy people. It would be hard nowadays not to be aware of pregnancy and maternity discrimination or the penalty many still pay for working flexibly, though it is very difficult for individual women to come forward to tell their stories since the likelihood is that they will somehow end up worse off because of it. When we recently asked for case studies regarding flexible working problems we were inundated, but very few women wanted to be named. Again it is the sheer numbers and the details of each case that is striking.

Even though few feel able to talk publicly about what has happened to them, the statistics alone put many men off sharing parental leave and working flexibly so perpetuating the problems. It’s systemic and therefore extremely hard to tackle.

It’s not that I haven’t met many good male colleagues in the course of my working life. I am going to the funeral of one of the best managers I ever had next week. He was kind, thoughtful and supportive, not just of me, but of so many of my colleagues. I don’t think he truly understood how important that was. Having experienced the opposite, I wish he had known how much it was appreciated.

To counter the default culture which undermines women – and no doubt many men too – takes a lot of hard work, questioning of norms, truly listening to colleagues and celebrating good managers. It takes the ability to empathise, something we seem to have lost along the way these days, certainly in politics. Empathy is a hugely underrated quality. We would do well to foster it in these difficult times.

*Mum on the run is Mandy Garner, editor of Workingmums.co.uk.

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