Work Wednesday: An Undercut to the Chin

Jun 4, 2014

One of the unique things about my law school is that the majority of the deans are women.  They are well-educated, capable professionals with serious resumes. But even when a woman has an enviable title, skill set, and credentials, sometimes insecurities can creep out.

In a fifteen-minute speech, one of the deans used phrases, jokes and asides that repeatedly undercut her position and credentials.  “As you can see, most of us are women.  I promise we’re all qualified to be here,” she said.  “And we do have one man.  He’s qualified too.”  It was an attempt at humor, but it fell flat because there was no confidence behind the joke.  She barely looked up from the lectern.

Over the rest of her talk, she made comments about how she didn’t feel qualified for her job when it was offered to her and how people didn’t take her seriously at times.  At one point, she actually said, “You’re probably wondering why they sent me up here.”  The feminist inside me kept wondering what would make her think she didn’t belong in the position of power she holds?

Regardless of job title and skill set, many professional women act and speak as if they need to justify their presence at the head of the table.  They feel the need to explain why they are leading meetings or crack jokes about putting a woman in charge.  It is a lesson that I want all of us to unlearn.

It reminds me of a YouTube video from a college poetry contest in which the poet says, “I asked five questions in genetics class today, and all of them started with the word, ‘Sorry’.” 

Why do so many of us feel the need to apologize for taking up space that we are entitled to?  Why aren’t we more like men who never seem to feel the need to justify their position?

Most people assume that if you’re in a position of power, you deserve to be there and if you project that power, they won’t doubt your skills unless you give them a reason to do so.  But many women assume that they’re being doubted, so they try to compensate for the presumed doubt up front.  All this does is weaken their position and undercut their status.

This is something that I’ve intermittently struggled with throughout my career and it hurts me to see other women slogging through as if their presence demands a justification.  If someone selects you to give a talk, lead a meeting, or hold a position of authority, you earned this opportunity.  Don’t feel uncomfortable occupying the space that you have every right to occupy.  Bosses don’t just give away positions of authority and purpose, have confidence in your accomplishments and the hard work and skills that got you there.

All women need to learn to be more careful with our words to make sure that we’re not pulling the rug out from under ourselves.  Lord knows, there are plenty of people willing to do it for us.  So behave like the qualified professional that your resume says you are and project that “manly” confidence that says, “I belong here.  I earned my place.  I don’t have to justify anything.”

Discussions, Work Wednesdays

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  1. Jenn says:

    Wow, so I started writing a comment on this, but it got really long, so I think I’m going to have to write a blog post replying to it myself. It’s a good comment, though. I’m in a field where there is overt doubt of a woman’s ability, so I have to work doubly hard not to buy into it.

  2. MNF says:

    Love it. Contemplating printing this post out and taping it to the inside of a cabinet in my desk.

  3. Steph says:

    As always, great advice Belle! Thanks.

  4. My incredibly intelligent and successful best friend sent me the link to this. This is so much of everything that all women need to hear. If you don’t believe in your ability to do a job then why would anyone else. I want my nieces to know that they have a right to be a dean or CEO. Thank you for sharing.

  5. LadyLawyer12 says:

    Check out “The Confidence Gap” by Kay and Shipman, published in The Atlantic last month. They have a lot to say about this issue. Saw them speak in DC recently too. I’m glad they are discussing the issue, though I’m not sure how much they resolve with their article (and corresponding book).

  6. […] of my favorite blogs, for both style and substance, is Capitol Hill Style. She recently published this post, about how women undercut themselves by responding to presumed doubt of their abilities. And it […]

    • Monica says:

      I had not heard of Impostor’s Syndrome before, but I see my own behavior there. I do not undercut myself to others, but I undercut myself to myself. I feel like someone is going to give me a problem one day that I can’t solve and they are going to finally find out that I don’t know anything. My manager tells me that I have more technical aptitude than anyone he’s met in his 20+ year career, I can’t believe that.

      The difficulty I have is in saying that yes, women need to avoid false modesty, or self-deprecation, because they are afraid other people are already thinking it, but do we have to come off as obnoxious know-it-all’s like the men you describe? There has to be a middle ground.

      Wonderful complementary post, thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. TheLoop says:

    I grew up in a country with a highly patriarchal culture where no one can honestly deny that women are discriminated against. But I also grew up in a family that was proud of its women’s achievements and where women were prized even more then men. The result of these two influences on my self-esteem has been really interesting. Even in situations where I truly don’t know the right answers or I am not fully qualified to be there, I always assume the fault lies with others, not with me… that I must be experiencing discrimination because of my gender and not because of my abilities. In short, I probably have the opposite problem than the dean in your blog and likely to need to learn some humility, but I’ll take my problem over hers any day.

    • Anna says:

      I’d definitely take your problem over hers. As a college student at one of the top three liberal arts colleges in the country and now several years as a Hill staffer, it’s taken me a while to realize how many people have no clue what they’re talking about, or at least, no more than I do, but they just hold such confidence in themselves. I always felt like I was the dumbest person in the room, when in reality, I’m just as smart as everyone else. I’m just always too full of self-doubt to put myself out there like others. I mean, I didn’t get here through dumb luck.

  8. V says:

    Great post, i think the things you mentioned are very true, and we (women) have learned them from culture. I find myself saying sorry to be polite before making statements. I’m going to work on cutting out that first word, just like we can all cut “um” from sentences.

    Ever since that young man killed all those students in California, i’ve taken a closer look at how women are treated and how we treat ourselves.

  9. zeedee says:


    I hope you will take the opportunity to communicate this matter to the Dean herself.

  10. s says:

    wow. thank you for sharing that exchange… food for thought.

  11. Elz says:

    Yes! To everything. Stop apologizing for asking questions, making a statement, taking a position.

  12. Katherine says:

    Amen! Amen! Amen!

  13. LeesaS says:

    Belle you hit the nail on the head. I agree with the post about Imposters syndrome and sadly see this all to often. It physically pains me when I see smart, accomplished women subconsciously undercut themselves in public settings. We have all worked hard and have earned a seat at the table. I think every day how my behavior not only sets an example, but paves the way for my daughter’s generation to achieve even greater leadership success. We all need to take the pledge to help each other. You should point put the behavior to the Dean. I’m sure she would appreciate having the mirror turned inward. We all need that from time to time.

  14. T says:

    Wow! This is exactly what I needed to read this morning. I was recently promoted to a new position within my department, and have been second guessing myself. You’re right! They put me here for a reason. It’s definitely time to woman-up!

  15. KH says:

    Belle, can you tell me in a nutshell (or even a whole post!) how you personally confidence in yourself, or did a few years ago, when you are young in your career?
    I agree 100% with your post but I know I still do it. I’ve been working in politics and the media for 5 years now, both on local and national levels, and though I know I worked hard, am smart and have a talent at my jobs, it’s still hard for me to feel confident and trust my judgement around others, especially men, that have been doing this for a lot longer than me – especially male bosses. What did you tell yourself?

    • Belle says:

      It’s not always easy. There have been many times when I had to “fake it til ya make it” to keep from slipping into insecurities. It’s helpful for me to remind myself that the people who have put me in this position (hired me, brought me in, etc.) wouldn’t have chosen me if they didn’t think I could do it.

      However, there’s nothing wrong with deferring to people with more experience. You should confidently state what you think, weigh it against their opinion, and then decide whether you still think your prescribed course of action is best. BE confident in your skills and judgment, but understand that that doesn’t always supersede the experience or the opinions of others. That being said, don’t default to the notion that they are right just because their resume is longer.

      • KH says:

        Belle, Thanks for your well-written response.
        You are absolutely right…
        I didn’t use to mind deferring as much, and would act meek & sweet so that I didn’t step on any toes. Now that I’m almost 28, I want my opinion to be listened to and respected, even if it isn’t always followed. With all of the male egos in the political/media world, it’s hard to get your voice.

  16. […] Belle from Capitol Hill Style with Work Wednesday: An Undercut to the Chin: […]

  17. […] big fan of Belle, over at Capitol Hill Style and I really enjoyed her post a few weeks ago titled An Undercut to the Chin I am so guilty of this, especially at work.  I will apologize for everything, one of my favorite […]

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