Women make up more than half of the global workforce but are underrepresented in top leadership roles. Research led by Mary Shea for the  Journal of Selling’s  special edition on women in B2B sales— It’s Time To Move Beyond Lean-In: Breaking Institutional Barriers to Empower Female Sales Leaders revealed the following statistics: 

  • Only 7.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. 
  • 85% of venture capital funding is awarded to all male-led companies. 
  • 74% of B2B sales leaders claim to hire with diversity in mind.  
  • 33% of B2B sellers are women.  
  • 12% of the top B2B sales jobs go to women.  

Women in Top Leadership Roles

Why the Inequity? 

The research revealed that women in B2B sales face implicit and explicit biases throughout their careers. This includes unwelcoming job descriptions, a lack of female interviewers and confidence issues that plague female sales professionals throughout their career journeys.  

I was honored to speak on a panel of experts about this research with Mary for Outreach’s Unleash 2021. I focused on why confidence issues hold female sellers back because it’s something I see regularly with my female executive coaching clients.  

Problems Begin Early On 

37-percent of women surveyed by Mary’s team said they have a lack of confidence in themselves and their ideas. Unfortunately, the confidence issue doesn’t originate when a woman enters the workforce. It starts during puberty, between the ages of eight to 14. A girl’s confidence declines 30%, and the worst part is that they never fully recover their confidence.  

So what’s happening to girls during puberty other than raging hormones? Well, their focus shifts. Suddenly, they crave being accepted by their peers. They want to fit in. They start looking for external validation. And, they want boys to notice them and like them.  

As the focus shifts, so do the internal conversations girls start having with themselves. They start scrutinizing themselves. They start questioning themselves: 

  • Am I thin enough?  
  • Am I attractive enough?  
  • What do I need to do to be liked?   

At the same time this dialog is going on inside, externally, girls are being socially scrutinized by peer groups, and they’re being bombarded with media messages that tell them they are inadequate. So repeatedly, girls are being fed their greatest fear: they are not good enough. 


Now, let’s fast forward. A girl grows up and enters the workplace, where what she encounters there just reinforces her insecurity. The workplace is filled with mixed messages, implicit bias and mansplaining. Filled with moments of being dismissed, she’s likely to have the experience of sitting in a meeting, sharing her point of view, and it falls flat. Five minutes later, the man next to her in that same meeting makes the exact same point and suddenly – it’s a brilliant idea. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some version of that story from my clients!  

This loss of confidence has a profound impact on the trajectory of a woman’s career.  

The Impacts on a Woman’s Career 

Statistics show that women generally will only apply for jobs they meet 100% of the qualifications for. Men will apply for jobs if they meet only 60%. 

Apply that to the trajectory of one’s career over time, and you have men and women ending up in very different places at the end of their career. In fact, Mary’s research showed that pay inequity is one of the most persistent and pernicious issues female sales pros face at all stages of their careers.  

What sabotages women’s success is not their lack of ability – it’s their doubt. In fact, company profits are  close to 50% higher  when women are well-represented at executive levels. And when women lead sales teams, they deliver  higher win and quota attainment rates  than their male counterparts. 

But even when a woman makes it to the C-suite, she typically continues to chip away at her self-esteem. She repeats to herself that she is not good enough. She suffers from imposter syndrome, which is a  deep-seated fear that her success is more a matter of luck than a measure of true ability. 

This lack of confidence can reveal its ugly head throughout a career in many forms, from fear of applying for a new job to performance anxiety. People who shy away from being called on in a team meeting suffer from performance anxiety. At the core of that anxiety are the thoughts that they are not good enough, that they will not show up well in meetings. I’m actually currently working with a client who just won an international award that few women have ever won, and she has performance anxiety. It happens to smart and successful people, too.  

Related: How to Rebuild your Self-Confidence and Self-Esteem 

Mixed Messages + Bias  

Women deal with men’s implicit bias, mansplaining and general discounting of their positions throughout their careers. Women are told that they must learn to position their conversations less aggressively or more collaboratively, and are routinely perceived as being less powerful than men. But if a woman does speak more assertively — more powerfully — then she is told she is too aggressive. The mixed messages are completely contradictory: You’re too soft (you’re too aggressive). You’re too weak (you’re too powerful). You’re too vocal (you’re not vocal enough). We see this bias and mixed messaging in both informal verbal feedback and formal written performance reviews. These mixed messages shape women’s behaviors and make them second-guess themselves. 

Women — even in top senior roles — also get counselled on their attire or looks. For example, they are told to wear tighter-fitting clothes. So, women are literally driven to dress in a certain way that is pleasing or acceptable to men. 

As an example, look at Kamala Harris as candidate for vice-president in 2020. During the campaign, people were critical of everything about her — politics aside! Everything about her was dissected – hair, dress, shoes, mannerisms, etc. — that simply didn’t happen for Mike Pence, the male candidate. Kamala had to take care so as not to be seen as too assertive, too aggressive; she had to say things in a way that could be consumed by the masses. Men don’t have to self-monitor or adjust their behavior in that way. 

Woman in a Male World

Women in a Male World 

Women leaders are also faced with challenges to find their authentic leadership style. Imitating male colleagues in similar roles doesn’t work according to Maria Black, who was interviewed by Mary’s team. She  described a period earlier in her career when  she read baseball and other sports  statistics even though she had no particular interest in those details. One day  a male colleague pulled her aside and said, “You can read all the  sports pages you want, but you are never going to be one of the guys.” That conversation was  a  turning point for Black who told the researchers,   “Owning your own strengths, recognizing those things, and showing up authentically is really important  for women.”  

What Happens over Time 

If women don’t grow, they don’t optimize their performance or full potential. They don’t live into their full selves. Their inner talk and outward experiences continually erode their self-esteem.  

Over time, this can result in feelings of resentment, deep disappointment and resignation, leading to checking out or disengagement. They never feel, at a deep level, that they are good enough or went far enough in their career potential.  

How to Resolve Confidence Issues 

When I work with clients on confidence issues, I work from the inside out. That’s the only way to do it. There’s no shortcut. And the benefits of  working  with an executive coach are clear. Eighty-two percent of Women in Revenue 2020 survey respondents stated ongoing training/education for career advancement was critical or very important. 

People often want to increase their self-confidence by simply applying tactical changes. But that does not work! You cannot just expect that, “Well, I’ll pull my shoulders back, use my power stance, and that will fix it.” You might feel better in the moment, but at your core, ultimately you are still driven by your internal disempowering belief system. A tactical approach does not disentangle or root out your deeply ingrained but inaccurate, invalid self-assessments. For real change, you have to build a completely new — and truer — inner landscape through enough repetition that it gets into your bones, and it becomes your permanent new lens or perspective. 

That’s why I’ve developed a process called MindMastery™. It’s something that I’ve spent over 20 years of applied research on and over 40,000 one on one coaching hours to refine it. It’s a tool for you to develop your self-awareness, mindfulness, emotional intelligence and resilience. These are all fundamental elements that you will need to regain your self-esteem. 

Confidence Issues

You need to become aware of your underlying operating system – that’s your beliefs and the conversations that you’re having with yourself all day long as well as your blind spots, so you’re keenly aware of exactly how you’re sabotaging yourself and your performance.  

Adjust, reframe those thoughts, beliefs, values and perspectives that are out of alignment with supporting you to regain your confidence. Then you need to practice those new ways of thinking and new ways of behaving until they feel authentic, and they become integrated as a habit.  

Making a Difference in the Workplace 

Do these internal changes make an actual difference in the workplace? Yes. These women do advance. They feel different in the room; they show up differently. There’s a palpably different level of poise and sense of confidence. They find their authentic voice and stop caring about whether other people “like” them or not. They get to a place of understanding that whatever happens in the room, it cannot be taken personally. They shift from being too careful, tentative and cautious. They learn to (elegantly) call out behavior that warrants it.  

But here’s the bad news. Even when you have regained your confidence, you’re still going to experience biased attitudes, biased behavior in the workplace. So it’s important to remember, you’re not going to change others, but you can change yourself. And that’s where the power lies – within you. So reclaim that power. Reclaim that confidence.  

Learn more about our MindMastery workshop