‘If I can see it, I can be it’: Confidence and role models are key to female leadership

Tue 14 Apr 2020

‘If I can see it, I can be it’: Confidence and role models are key to female leadership

Much has been written and discussed about the importance of cultural and structural change in ensuring that increasing numbers of women leaders can come to the fore in organisations, institutions, and public life. This is undoubtedly vital work, without which progress cannot be made. However, further steps are crucial in ensuring that women can envisage themselves in those positions in the first instance, and can garner the confidence required to reach the heights which they aspire to.  

‘Women Rising: the Unseen Barriers’ -- research by Herminia Ibarra, Robin J. Ely and Deborah M. Kolb, published in the Harvard Business Review -- asserts that CEOs often become frustrated by a lack of success in their leadership initiatives and efforts to build pipeline of talented women, touted as having ‘what it takes’ to make it to the top.i  What these leaders are not seeing, however, is the need to "address the often fragile process of coming to see oneself, and to be seen by others, as a leader”. The research emphasises that the process of becoming a leader “involves much more than being put in a leadership role, acquiring new skills, and adapting one’s style to the requirements of that role", but instead requires a “fundamental identity shift.”   

The process of becoming a leader is iterative and relational, borne out in actions taken and how those actions are received. However, the authors emphasise that, “for women, the subtle gender bias that persists in organisations and in society disrupts the learning cycle at the heart of becoming a leader”. Addressing structural and cultural barriers alongside the mental barriers resulting from the internalisation of social biases, ensures that women can progress and fulfill their full potential; it is “not enough to identify and instill the “right” skills and competencies as if in a social vacuum. The context must support a woman’s motivation to lead and also increase the likelihood that others will recognise and encourage her efforts”.  

Moving Women into Leadership

The findings of KPMG’s 2015 Women’s Leadership report, Moving Women Forward into Leadership Roles, support these conclusions. The study, conducted in the U.S, sought to understand the impact of socialisation, self-perceptions and figures of influence on “how the aspiration and ambition to lead is developed and nurtured—or not—in women”.  3,014 women between the ages of 18 and 64 were surveyed as part of the study. The study concluded that, despite positive changes for and by women leaders in recent years, “lack of confidence, encouragement, connections or opportunities from childhood and later” is still holding women back. Whilst six in ten of the women surveyed aspire to senior leadership positions, six in ten also found it difficult to envisage themselves as leaders, and over half approached the idea of obtaining a leadership position with trepidation because of their status as women. The impact of ‘identity’ in the creation and empowerment of leaders, as outlined by research in the Harvard Business Review, rings true.  

As the KPMG study dug deeper, three key areas beyond cultural and structural change emerged as integral in empowering more women to reach senior positions:  

  1. socialising leadership early in life,  
  2. modeling leadership and building confidence through role models and networking 
  3. providing or enhancing corporate development programs that move more women forward 

Early years prove to be pivotal in shaping leaders and endowing women with confidence in their abilities to lead. 76% of survey participants felt that greater opportunities to learn about leadership in childhood would have had a positive impact in adulthood. Whilst 86% of respondents reported having been taught as children to ‘be nice to others’ and to '‘be a good student', only 44% learned to ‘be a good leader’ and a mere 34% learned to share her point of view with others. Female role models, usually mothers or teachers, were reported as pivotal in learning leadership skills and acquiring confidence early in life, and women who were positively oriented towards leadership in childhood, either through encouragement or modelled behaviour, were markedly more likely to reach senior leadership positions than those who were not. Furthermore, the study found that women who had positive role models growing up are twice as likely to feel confident today; 50%, compared with 25% of women were not lucky enough to have had positive role models.

Confidence is Key  

Encouragingly, however, the data also revealed that confidence – considered by those surveyed as “the key to leadership success” -- can be learned and acquired over the course of a lifetime and career, and that there are concrete steps which organisations can take to facilitate this.  

As things stand, struggles with confidence are widespread, and hold women back. A paltry 49% of women consider themselves to be confident. However, this figure rested at 44% for entry-level working women, growing to 52% for mid-level colleagues and 55% for senior-level female staff. Such figures demonstrate the need for support in building the confidence of women at all stages of their careers, and especially at the beginning. Lack of confidence was found to inhibit women in engaging in behaviours which can help them to advance. Low confidence prevented 92% of survey respondents from asking for sponsors, 79% from seeking mentors, 76% from asking for access to senior leadership, 73% from pursuing a job opportunity beyond their experience, 69% from asking for a career path plan, and 65% from asking for a promotion. 

Women are themselves aware of what they need to make the jump into positions of leadership, with support, training and role models identified as crucial factors in enabling women to advance in their careers. 67% of women surveyed felt that support in building confidence and helping them feel like leaders would benefit them, whilst 57% and 56% felt that leadership training and confidence building, respectively, would be crucial to helping more women to take up leadership roles in future.  

Furthermore, role models have an important role to play in adulthood as well as childhood. A staggering 86% of women report when they see more women in leadership, they are encouraged they can get there themselves, emphasising the adage that ‘If I can see it, I can be it’. A study by Thekla Morgenroth, Michelle K. Ryan, and Kim Peters, entitled ‘The Motivational Theory of Role Modeling: How Role Models Influence Role Aspirants’ Goals’, sets out the important part which role models can play in mobilising the aspirations and determination of individuals who identify with them. According to their research, “role models serve 3 distinct functions in which they influence goals and motivation: acting as behavioral models, representing the possible, and being inspirational.” 

Making the Impossible, Possible 

Here, the intersection of culture change and confidence becomes clear. The research by Ibarra, Ely and Kolb in the Harvard Business Review outlines that organisations “inadvertently undermine” the process of women forming identities as leaders. When women are encouraged to proactively seek leadership roles, without the organisation having addressed other policies and practices which support women’s leadership identity-building, this “communicates a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders”.  

Culture and structural change – from encouraging flexible working and shared parental leave, to the eradication of unacceptable and sexist behaviour -- is fundamental in enabling women to progress. However, further steps around confidence building and training are required to ensure that historic internal barriers are eradicated too. By providing a space where women can develop their confidence in themselves as leaders and drawing attention to female leaders who may act as role models, organisiations can enable women to ‘make the impossible, possible’ and envisage themselves as leaders, despite never having understood themselves in such a way previously.  

The data is stark: KPMG reported that almost nine in ten women reported that they are encouraged by the women they see in leadership today, whilst 86% indicated that seeing more women in leadership positions encourages them that they can get there themselves. However, without the confidence and support to allow women to create an internalised identity as leadership material, necessary steps such as networking and asking for what they want and need will continue to hold them back.   

If I can see it, I can be it

We can conclude from this in-depth research that both confidence and role models are crucial in ensuring that women can envisage themselves in leadership positions, and garner the confidence required to reach the heights to which they aspire.  Whilst cultural and structural change play huge parts in removing barriers for women leaders, confidence and role models cannot be underestimated as key tools for progression.   

For this very reason, sessions such as ‘exploring the confidence conundrum’, ‘tackling imposter syndrome’ and ‘the importance of sponsorship and mentorship’ form key tenets of the Dods D&I event agendas. Run in conjunction with structural and cultural change sessions, around topics such as flexible working, menopause adjustments and men as allies, training focuses on a holistic approach to advancing female leaders, and providing the necessary tools for attendees flourish.  

Our full list women’s leadership events can be found on our upcoming event page, here: www.dodsdiversity.com/upcoming-events.htm  



Ibarra, Herminia; Ely, Robin J.; & Kolb, Deborah M. (September 2013). ‘Women Rising: The Unseen Barriers’, The Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2013/09/women-rising-the-unseen-barriers 

KPMG Women’s Leadership Study (2015). ‘Moving Women Forward into Leadership Roles’. 


Morgenroth, Thekla; Ryan, Michelle K. ; & Peters, Kim (December 2015). ‘The Motivational Theory of Role Modeling: How Role Models Influence Role Aspirants’ Goals’.  https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1037/gpr0000059 

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