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Prominent women talk about confidence at Japanese forum

For her 2009 book “Womenomics,” television journalist Claire Shipman interviewed dozens of accomplished women, from engineers to investment bankers. Despite their success, a common theme emerged: self-doubt. Many of the women would confide to Shipman that they felt like “imposters” and weren’t qualified to run a company or apply for a promotion.

Shipman herself says she wasn’t immune to this type of self-recrimination. She recently decided to take a break from journalism to campaign for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton because, as Shipman says, “I’ve spent too much time focusing on women and leadership not to help in that effort.”

Even though she has interviewed figures ranging from former President Bill Clinton to Jordan’s Queen Rania and was a regular contributor to “Good Morning America,” Shipman doubted she could handle the new job. “I had this questioning moment of, ‘How am I possibly qualified to be out as a surrogate for Hillary Clinton and be on the campaign trail? Why would people listen to me?’”

Likewise, when Shipman decided to follow up on “Womenomics” with the 2014 book “The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know,” her first instinct was to question whether she could pull it off.

But she did, and she discussed the issue of confidence and women — or rather, their detrimental lack thereof — at a Sept. 13 forum hosted by Nobuko Sasae, wife of Japanese ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, at the Japanese residence on Nebraska Avenue, NW.

They were joined by Anne Anderson, Ireland’s first female ambassador to the United States, and more than 100 women ranging from students to senior-level executives.

Shipman, along with “Confidence Code” co-author Katty Kay of the BBC, said she wanted to explore the issue of confidence because, even though women now make up half of the workforce and studies have shown that companies employing large numbers of women tend to be more profitable, women are still vastly underrepresented at the top, whether in a corporate boardroom or on Capitol Hill.

“Half a century since women first forced open the boardroom doors, our career trajectories still look very different from men’s,” Shipman and Kay wrote in a May 2014 feature in The Atlantic.

Their theory: a lack of confidence.

“We think we need to be more qualified, study after study says, to put ourselves forward for a job or a promotion. We always underestimate how we perform while men overestimate how they perform,” Shipman told her audience. “But confidence is something we can control…. Men’s confidence in their lives tends to be more stable. For women, it tends to build over time.

From left, journalist and author Claire Shipman, wife of the Japanese ambassador Nobuko Sasae and Irish ambassador Anne Anderson discuss Shipman’s book, “The Confidence Code,” at a forum hosted by Sasae at the Japanese ambassador’s residence. Photo: Gail Scott

“What we also found, even more importantly, is that there’s a virtuous circle aspect to confidence in that it’s the process of taking risk and acting and probably failing in the beginning and struggling and then mastering that creates more confidence. You have to take the first step at some point, but once you start … you will build more confidence,” she added.

Yet confidence is a difficult concept to define and measure. Shipman and Kay relied on a wealth of data and research in their book to show that by most metrics, professional women are shortchanging themselves.

“Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” the two wrote. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect. Or practically perfect.” Shipman said they also settled on a fairly simple definition of confidence that resonated with her.

“[W]e can’t even get academics to be able to agree on what confidence is, and I was just in the weeds on it. But finally we cut everything away and we really found that confidence — one professor in particular said it so eloquently to us — confidence is what turns our thoughts into action,” Shipman explained. “Women often pause at that point of action because we’re still thinking and considering and ruminating and waiting…. Women come up almost immediately with a lot of reasons why not.”

Anderson said she did just that when she debated accepting the chairmanship of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in 1999. At the time, she was a divorced single mother “and I was so close to saying, ‘No, please just let somebody else do it,’” she recalled. But after agonizing for 24 hours, she came to the conclusion that “you have to walk the walk. You can’t just spend your career talking about empowering women.”

Since taking on that Human Rights Commission role, Anderson has also served as Ireland’s permanent representative to the U.N. in New York and in Geneva, as well as ambassador to France, among other postings.

Despite climbing the ranks of the Irish Foreign Service, Anderson said that just a few weeks ago, she attended a conference in Dublin where her first instinct was to wait until everyone had spoken before speaking up herself. Modesty also dictated that she sit in the back of the room.

“Self-doubt, self-recrimination and perfectionism, guilt — there’s no question these issues are holding women back. But the caveat I add … is that we face factors in society — societal issues and workplace issues — that are holding women back as well. So we are contributing to our own difficulties but by no means are we the authors of our own misfortunes.”

Anderson said the U.S. presidential election has exposed the double standards that dominate politics. She pointed out that Hillary Clinton has faced a barrage of questions that would never be asked of a male candidate — among them, “Does she look like a president?” “Is her voice the right timbre?” and “Does she smile enough?”

In fact, just the other day, this writer overheard a man on the Metro complaining that Clinton doesn’t have a sense of humor and needs to smile more often. It’s a well-worn trope. Journalists from Juan Williams of Fox News to Gloria Borger of CNN all analyzed Clinton’s smile during the September debate against her Republican rival Donald Trump. The assumption, however, that Clinton’s ability to flash her pearly whites or crack a joke might win over hard-nosed world leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin is itself laughable.

Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae, left, talks with guests at a discussion on women and confidence at the Japanese residence. Photo: Embassy of Japan

Clinton, of course, has been called many things: untrustworthy, secretive, too hawkish and too much of a consummate insider to think outside the box — all legitimate concerns that deserve scrutiny. But just as often, she is disparaged for her stamina, her wardrobe, her hair and her humor (or lack thereof) — all charges that would never be lobbed at a male candidate.

Clinton has also been lambasted for her supposed weakness in supporting her husband during his bouts of infidelity — or, conversely, for aggressively attacking his mistresses. Yet before the spectacular fallout from the 2005 hot-mic tape in which Trump bragged about sexually forcing himself on women, people rarely commented on the real-estate magnate’s colorful love life, including his vulgar remarks, various affairs and three marriages.

Trump’s critics have pointed out that a female presidential candidate standing on stage at a national convention with five children sired by three different men would be ludicrous. Anderson hinted as much when she asked the audience to “imagine a female version of Donald Trump running for president,” prompting a roar of laughter from the crowd.

Anderson also elicited a few knowing chuckles when she reflected on the different leadership styles between men and women.

In 2001, she became the first woman from any EU member state to serve as ambassador to the European Union in Brussels. “So I walked into this club of men, and there were 15 member states of the European Union at the time. I was presiding over that club in 2004 because we had the Irish presidency of the European Union when they enlarged to 25 — and what do you know? Ten new men walked into the room,” she quipped.

Although she described her colleagues as “respectful” and “accomplished,” she didn’t mince words when it came to their handling of meetings.

“As able and as wonderful as these EU colleagues were ... if it had been 25 women around the table instead of 24 men and one woman, there wouldn’t have been as many late nights. I mean, we all knew what the outcome was going to be … but the guys had to go through the whole dog-and-pony show,” she said to wry laughter.

“I think [women are] more focused and results-oriented and we’re not interested in endless meetings where people can just kind of show off. Maybe it’s because we’re used to multitasking. We have lives to get on with,” she opined.

Anderson added that while women are often praised for their “collaborative, consensus-building” approach to leadership, those traits can be universal.

“Our listening ability is phenomenal,” Shipman observed. “But you’re right — 25 women, boy things would be efficient. We don’t feel the need to just perform. That’s very distinct. What I think is difficult though is that … sometimes that performance ability is what is deemed missing.”

From left, translator Nobuko Sasae, Claire Shipman of “Good Morning America” and Irish Ambassador Anne Anderson discuss the issue of women and confidence. Photo: Embassy of Japan

Another common challenge women leaders face is straddling the line between respect and likability.

“And when there’s a tradeoff between being respected and being liked, [women often opt] for being liked,” Anderson said, noting that she often had to take unpopular decisions, “but I think it did equip me to face the fact that you won’t always be liked and that you sometimes have to make that tradeoff to stay true to what you believe is the right thing to do.”

Anderson conceded that strong male bosses are often seen as assertive, while their female counterparts are viewed as arrogant. “But sometimes you’ve just got to live with the backlash,” she said. “Be forceful, respectful, clear and focused. And if it rubs people up the wrong way, well too bad.”

Shipman said it took her years to accept that pleasing everyone isn’t your job. “I felt enormous pressure to do everything my bosses wanted me to do and to fit into a certain mold and have everybody like me. And it took me years to learn that I could say no,” she said. “It’s really hard to fight that desire to please people essentially.”

Nobuko Sasae, a seasoned translator in addition to being the Japanese envoy’s wife, said she could relate to that inclination. “In my generation, coming from a culture of humility, you do not overstate your accomplishments. Even the word ‘ambitious’ is not necessarily well-taken in Japanese culture,” she said. “Sometimes there’s a tradeoff between confidence and grace because … overconfidence can be arrogance.”

Anderson remarked that “grace isn’t about smiling and being liked and so on. It’s something more fundamental than that. A gentleman is someone who never inflicts pain. A lady may be someone who doesn’t inflict pain either. So grace is I think about being a decent human being, treating others respectfully, keeping a moral compass, never scoring cheap points, etc.”

“Do you have to be a jerk to be confident? No. Confidence is really not about arrogance,” Shipman added. “I think what distinguishes it … is having humility and empathy for other people.”

The journalist recalled IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde telling her that women shouldn’t lose the traits “we naturally have that make us powerful as leaders and as individuals.”

Anderson also cited Lagarde as an example that confidence doesn’t fit a particular mold. “She’s sort of tall and elegant and super exudes that type of confidence. At the same time, I would say that … there’s no stereotype. There’s no cookie-cutter. One of the women that I most admired in my career in the ’90s when I was ambassador at the U.N. was Sadako Ogata, who was the Japanese high commissioner for refugees at the time. I guess she was probably about five feet tall, but she was a giant over there. She radiated integrity and authority and confidence and dignity,” the Irish ambassador said.

“I just think everybody can have confidence, but it’s not just something you can apply with a paintbrush,” she added. “You just need to take hold of yourself and … basically ask yourself what sort of person you want to be, what sort of life you want to have. Are you just going to be someone to whom things happen or someone who makes things happen? And if you want to be someone who shapes things and makes a difference, you’ve just got to have confidence. You simply don’t have a choice about it.”

Anderson concluded by pointing out that, “You’re much more likely in life to regret the things that you haven’t done rather than regret the things you have done.”

Shipman agreed. “Don’t be afraid to fail. If you’re not having failures, then you’re not thinking big enough.”

Anna Gawel is managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.



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