Through the process of networking, whether online or off, I frequently encounter the term "thought leader" as a self-describing attribute. While I must admit I prefer it to the term "visionary" (whose popularity seems to be waning), I do wonder what sort of qualifications "thought leaders" actually have – and whether I can get away with calling myself one with a straight face.
Referring to yourself as a "thought leader" requires a certain level of confidence, and there seems to be a common perception that women lack this quality.
I'm not convinced that women, generally speaking, are less confident than men. And I always hesitate to make any statement that starts with "women are" and then allows the speaker to fill in the blank with a variety of adjectives.
Yet several studies seem to indicate that many women do fall short on the confidence scale. Research by the American Sociological Association found that female engineers feel less certain about their expertise than men. Another study, by the London-based Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, found that women are less confident as entrepreneurs, when it comes to starting or running a business.
Ann Daly, an Austin, Tex.-based author and career coach devoted to the advancement of women, defines confidence as the ability to put yourself forward, in this case in the business world. Dr. Daly, a former associate professor at University of Texas, also views confidence as a behaviour, which men and women learn differently.
"Our culture loves to keep men and women in their place by differentiating them," she said, adding that the gender-specific approaches to confidence are instilled early in a child's education.
Girls, she explained, internalize the lesson that they need to get everything right to reach the top of the class, a phenomenon she refers to as "the gold star syndrome." That early emphasis teaches girls that advancement requires perfectionism.
"Perfection is the enemy of the good, and it's the enemy of confidence," she said. "Women who focus more on the process, the work, rather than the gold star, tend to have a greater capacity to put themselves out in the world."
To illustrate her point, she referred to a Hewlett-Packard study, cited in a McKinsey Quarterly report, which found that women believe they must meet all the requirements of a job before applying for it, while men feel they only need 60 per cent of the requirements.
Let's turn the argument around: Do women really suffer from a lack of confidence, or are men merely overconfident?
A recent study from Columbia Business School found that men may have an easier time faking their level of expertise because of their honest overconfidence.
The study found that men and women alike lie about their performance, but that women do not exaggerate to the same degree. While the author of the study said men honestly believe their performance is 30 per cent better than it really is, the results also suggest that recruiters take men's claims with a grain of salt.
"Women are raised to be more modest and if you toot your own horn, that's not what nice women are raised to do," said Vickie Milazzo, Houston-based author of Wicked Success is Inside Every Woman.
She said she often sees women receive a compliment for their work and then pass it off to the rest of their team. When men receive a compliment, they often say, "Thank you."
"An easy thing for women to do, without coming across as arrogant, is to say 'thank you' when they are acknowledged and not underprice their contribution," Ms. Milazzo said.
There may be a fine line between confidence and boasting, and knowing where to draw that line can be tricky – perhaps even trickier if you are a woman, given that social expectations of men and women's behaviour differ.
"Men don't worry about being obnoxious because they don't face the penalty women face if they put themselves out there in a way that is deemed 'unfeminine,'" Dr. Daly noted. While women need to constantly negotiate the expectations of their gender, they also need to keep pushing those boundaries.
Both Dr. Daly and Ms. Milazzo suggest that to avoid this bind, you should focus on measurable successes when talking about yourself, such as how much you have increased sales for your company, the number of customer accounts you oversee, or the size of your portfolio.
"Put down numbers. Those are irrefutable, they are facts," Dr. Daly said. "At the end of the day, we want employees that will give us results."
Leah Eichler is co-founder of Femme-o-Nomics, a networking and content portal for professional women. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org