IBM CEO and the female confidence issue

by Shari Graydon

It’s 1997, and I’m on the phone in the home office space I share with my husband. He’s leaping up and down and gesticulating wildly in an effort to change the words coming out of my mouth.

Why? Because I’m telling a CBC radio reporter that “I’m not really the best person” to pontificate on the subject at hand.

When I hang up, he chastizes me mercilessly, pointing out that all the reporter really needed was a 15-second sound bite, and surely I know enough about the issue to have given him that. He’s right of course, and the irony is that only a few years before this incident, I’d complained about the number of truly expert women who had offered exactly the same reason when declining to be listed in a resource guide designed to make it easier for journalists to find women experts.  And in dozens of conversations with women experts over the past 18 months, I’ve heard a multitude of similar stories.

Is it possible that behind every competent woman who overcomes her socialized reluctance to assume authority, there has to be an encouraging man to remind her of her relative worth?

I’m sure this is not always the case, but this week it was incoming CEO of IBM, Virginia Rometty, who confessed that early on in her career she hesitated about accepting a big job, uncertain about whether she had sufficient experience. According to a New York Times article, it was her husband who challenged her to reflect on the likelihood of any a man with similar credentials reacting the way she had.

What it taught me was you have to be very confident, even though you’re so self-critical inside about what it is you may or may not know. And that, to me, leads to taking risks.

Apparently, we can’t be reminded of this often enough.