How to stop second-guessing yourself as a woman leader

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In second grade, I was assigned to a group activity with kids from different class sections. I took the lead in facilitating the discussion, and we disagreed on a lot of ideas. Finally, I came up with an idea that most people seemed to like. One of the boys in the group, whom I’d just met for the first time and who had been disagreeing with me the most, looked at me and declared with complete confidence, “That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve ever said.” 

I found his comment hilarious. Everyone who knew me knew I had said quite a lot of intelligent things in my life. I knew it too. The fact someone I’d just met felt he could make such a sweeping assumption about me was amusing, and nothing more. However, as I’ve gotten older and stepped into more significant leadership positions, I’ve found it harder to laugh those comments off. As the stakes become higher, I’ve grown more sensitive to criticism. 

As a woman in leadership, I’ve had to work twice as hard to prove my competence and earn the respect of my peers. I’ve struggled to strike the balance between being assertive and being labeled “bossy” or “dominating.” This has led me to overcompensate with extreme leniency just to be liked. I’ve allowed other people’s judgments of me to affect how I view myself.

I know these struggles are familiar to many women and gender-nonconforming individuals. In honor of International Women’s Day, here are some tips on how we can stop second-guessing ourselves as leaders. 

Know your worth

You were given that leadership position for a reason. Remember that you are smart, knowledgeable and capable — you’re a leader because you were identified as the best person for the job. Recognizing your strengths will help you ground yourself when you feel the pangs of self-doubt. When you see yourself as a worthy leader, others will see it too. 

Don’t take criticism too personally

Everyone is bound to make mistakes as a leader. Women and gender-nonconforming individuals, however, tend to be less easily forgiven for them. For this reason, accept constructive feedback to learn from your mistakes, but take mean-spirited criticism with a grain of salt. This can be hard to do, but remember that other people’s judgments of you do not reflect who you really are. When you know your value as a leader and as a human being, it becomes easier to laugh off the mean comments and stand your ground. 

Be comfortable taking up space 

As girls, we are taught from a young age to control our bodies and voices to take up as little space as possible. When we don’t, we risk being viewed as “abrasive,” and might even be punished for our transgressions. As a leader, I’ve felt afraid to raise my voice to command a crowd or share my opinions when no one seemed to be listening. On the other hand, many men I know have no problem taking up space, both physically and vocally. It’s time we unlearn what is expected of us and become comfortable taking up space. Speak up — be loud if you want. Open up your posture. You’re in charge. 

You don’t always have to be liked

For many women and gender-nonconforming leaders, it feels like a choice: Be assertive or be well-liked. Of course, there’s a balance to be struck. But if it feels like a choice to you, choose the former. It’s impossible to be liked by everyone all the time. In the past, I’ve forfeited having tough conversations or standing up for myself just to be liked. Your job as a leader is to get things done and support your team. As long as you’re empathetic to the needs of your team, it is okay if some people don’t like you. 

Hopefully, these tips will help you stop second-guessing yourself as a leader. No matter how thick-skinned you are though, it’s still sometimes hard to tune out self-doubt. But that doesn’t make you any less of a leader — it just makes you human. 

Contact Saamya Mungamuru at [email protected].