When Do Utah Women Struggle Most with Confidence and What Can We Do to Help?

In 2014, the Utah Women & Leadership Project (UWLP) team collected data from various sources to understand some of the issues in Utah regarding women, confidence, and leadership. The full set of results was published in a February 2015 research and policy brief titled, “Women, Confidence, and Leadership: What Do Utah Women Leaders Think?” In this blog we highlight the results from the fourth of five research questions analyzed: “When have you struggled most in your life with confidence? What would have helped you?” Data on this question were gathered from table dialogues held at a UWLP event and an online survey. Here is a summary of the results that Dr. Susan R. Madsen wrote and published on this question:

Personal Confidence Struggles

We asked a two-fold question of women at the UWLP event dialogue tables and in the follow-up survey: When have you struggled most in your life with confidence? What would have helped you gain confidence through these experiences?

When have you struggled most in life with confidence? Six primary themes emerged during data analysis:

  1. Growing Up. Over half of the survey participants said that they had their greatest struggles with confidence between 6th and 12th grades. Factors that most negatively affected confidence included unstable or unsafe homes, dysfunctional families (i.e., abuse and neglect), poor relationship with parents, parents who expected “pointless perfectionism,” sibling rivalry, not being able to be involved in activities, being teased and judged at school, not feeling like their ideas or thoughts mattered, and changes such as family moves or divorce of parents. Women shared common traits found in people who were negative influences: authoritative, aggressive, jealous, unfair, belittling, overprotective, and undermining. These were people who felt they always knew what was best, took advantage of others, put people down to make themselves look better, and did not encourage others to try new things and/or make mistakes.
  2. Motherhood. The next most common response was that motherhood had decreased confidence levels. As one respondent said, “Motherhood has been the biggest blow to my self-confidence.” There is great pressure to compare oneself to others who seem “perfect” and who appear to always be happy. Other negative influences included the monotony of being a homemaker, low income, feeling isolated, lack of external rewards for good performance, spouse assumptions that their work is more important, and domestic violence and divorce. Some women said they feel “forced” to fit into one mold (e.g., nurturer, child bearer, teacher, and homemaker). As one stated, “We feel guilty if we are not naturally good at these things, do not conform perfectly to that role, or have a desire to do something different.”
  3. Failure. Failure was a major confidence killer for many women. They had ruminated over failures and mistakes for years and still struggle. They did not know that failure could actually be a positive thing and that learning from failure could provide powerful growth opportunities.
  4. Body Image and Appearance. Many women struggled with being overweight and/or feeling they were not beautiful. Others felt that they needed to look perfect, and since this was never possible, their “confidence took a beating.” Other things mentioned were hormonal and physical changes, eating disorders, and depression and anxiety.
  5. Mixed Messages. Participants also said that the mixed messages that women in Utah receive are hard on women’s confidence. For example, one individual said, “We are told ‘We need your voices. They need to be heard in your homes, in your neighborhoods, in your ward councils, and in your communities.’ But then we get the feeling that we should not speak too loud, too often, or about the wrong topic.’”
  6. Workplace Challenges. We often feel “less than” or devalued in the workplace, which is hard on our confidence. Women are not as vocal, only apply for a promotion if they are fully qualified, struggle moving up the career ladder, feel frustrated with those who undermine them, and have to deal with both conscious and unconscious biases.

The second part of this question was as follows: “What would have helped you gain confidence through these experiences?” The most frequent responses can be grouped into the following three categories:

  1. Influential Individuals. More positive influences would have helped (e.g., women leaders, parents, family members, employers, co-workers, teachers, neighbors, and friends). The best people would have been those who had a personal stake in our success, valued our uniqueness, provided us with honest feedback (particularly about our strengths), were “safe to turn to,” saw our potential and believed in us, told us we could accomplish our goals, and were confident, supportive, strong, dependable, and empowering.
  2. Training and Development. More education is needed earlier in life about confidence and leadership. It is important to remind ourselves of our previous successes. We need to be told (and to remember throughout life) that we can do hard things and that mistakes and failures are actually important learning opportunities. Other important concepts to learn include the importance of taking action, making choices, celebrating victories and mistakes, communicating assertively, speaking up and expressing ourselves, taking risks, overcoming challenges, setting and accomplishing significant goals, learning to work hard and pushing forward, knowing that eventually you will not always be the “new kid on the street,” listening to your internal desires to improve and succeed, and recognizing and developing gifts and talents.
  3. Other. Respondents also mentioned the following actions that helped their confidence grow through the years: practicing meditation, mindfulness, and other mind-body practices; having self-compassion; gaining a knowledge of self-care; learning more effective ways to communicate; feeling a sense of belonging through joining a club, team, group, or network; having a confidence-building hobby; learning to do hard things and seeing improvements; participating in online communities and community education programs; attending and graduating from college; using knowledge and expertise to help others; and gaining the trust and respect of others.

The overall takeaways from this section of our research and surveys include Utah women leaders’ thoughts about specific life events and other settings that have hindered confidence, as well as ideas to help women develop greater confidence.


The text of this blog was excerpted from a February 2015 research and policy brief authored by Dr. Susan R. Madsen titled, “Women, Confidence, and Leadership: What Do Utah Women Leaders Think?” (Please see the entire brief for more information on research context and methodology.)


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