July 08, 2020
In this tenth edition of the OWSD Nigeria National Chapter University of Port Harcourt Branch series of scientific communications, Blessing Onyegeme-Okerenta speaks about assertiveness.
Women in Academia: Developing Self-Confidence and Assertiveness
By Blessing Onyegeme-Okerenta (PhD)
The academia is a very competitive environment which is male dominated and gender biased. Few woman are in the top echelon of the University organization, not because they are not brilliant with the basic required qualifications but because they have lost confidence in themselves or the system and have accepted that it’s a man’s world and there is nothing they can do about it. This lack of self-confidence cuts across all facets of life and career and have impacted negatively on the mental and emotional state of the women folk. Some women find it difficult to publish their scholarly articles or make presentations of the outcome of their research findings because they don’t believe in themselves or lack the ability to go public due to perceived or imaginary reaction from the academic world. This presentation is aimed at addressing how the women in academia can develop self-confidence and assertiveness.
What is Self-Confidence and Assertiveness?
Confidence is the quality of being certain of your abilities or of having trust in people, plans, or the future; it is the key to success, peace of mind and well-being. Self-confidence is all about having faith in your own ability. By trusting your ability, you will be able to deal with anything. It is not something that is genetically acquired, rather it is a phenotypic expression and a behaviour or a way of approaching things which can be learned from your environment. Having self-confidence boosts your self-esteem and helps you achieve your goals.
Assertiveness is the ability to express your opinions positively and with confidence. It is a key skill that can help you to better manage yourself, people and situations.
Most women in the field of science and education are likely to feel confident:
i. In their research area or area of expertise especially when they have good knowledge of what they are handling.
ii. When they are excelling in an area or do something they have previously done very well.
iii. When they are within the circle of people they know, trust and relate with freely.
Sometimes it is difficult to figure out exactly where the lack of confidence comes from. It could be any or a combination of the following:
- Lack of information
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of preparedness
- Past failure experience and dented image
- The thought of taking up a task or making a change
- Being faced with an uphill task or a new challenge
- Being asked to do something you consider uninteresting or dislike
- When you are to make a presentation to your superiors
These could fill you with so much fear and anxiety, making you shrink back into your comfort zone. However, there are ways of dealing with these situations:
1. Recognise and challenge your beliefs about yourself.
The biggest barrier to self-confidence is the ‘I’ factor. The belief ‘I’ am not a confident person’, ‘I’ am certain I cannot do this, ‘I’ will not be able to do this, ‘I’ am afraid, or ‘I’ am not sure I can do this. Confront your fears and ask what you are so afraid of. When you break it down, it may be something you can deal with. However, you have to step out of your comfort zone to try in order to succeed. You have to challenge this negative ‘I-Factor’ threat.
2. Recognise your ability, talents and successes. Know where your strength lies. Focus on and highlight on your strengths. This helps you achieve more personal satisfaction and helps others build their confidence in you. Avoid telling yourself about your weaknesses all the time, do not dwell on them otherwise you will lose the ability to recognise your strengths and successes, however small.
3. Accept small challenges at a time. Take some small risks to gain huge rewards. You need to push or project yourself little by little, as you progress in small steps, this will sometimes increase your confidence, very considerably. For example, accept to anchor your group event or team meeting, volunteer to organise a seminar, workshop or even a conference.
4. Prioritise your tasks. Setting your priorities, learning to make informed decisions and being well-organised and focused on accomplishing a task can boost your self-confidence.
5. Communication: Confidence can mean not feeling threatened or intimidated by the presence of anybody. Be aware of your verbal and non-verbal mode of communication or language. In terms of non-verbal mode of communication or body language, stay relaxed, stand upright and try not to wrap your arms around your body or slouch when making a presentation. When you are speaking, take deep breaths and speak slowly and purposefully.
6. Appearance: Dress moderately and appropriately to suit the occasion as this can affect your mood and performance as well as the way others perceive/interact with you. The way you dress, will determine how you will be addressed. It will be inappropriate to make a scientific presentation on the use of laboratory equipment wearing a dinner gown, a fascinator, and a six-inch high heel shoe.
Consider which of these you could develop and vow to do something about it today: Your appearance (clothes, hairstyle, gait, posture), the way you speak (tone, how you project your voice, words), you energy and enthusiasm and how expert or knowledgeable you are at something.
Impressions can make people think that you are confident. This can be achieve by assertiveness and can be applied to any situation where communication is key, for Example:
- Dealing with colleagues
- Running projects
- Working with others
Assertiveness can be learned. There are a number of techniques that can help you to develop your assertiveness:
1. Be your change agent. Taking the decision to change your behaviour is a strong stimulator of change in itself. As a starting point, focus on one behaviour characteristic you would like to change and practise in a safe environment.
2. Develop your confidence. Think positively. Work on changing those negative thoughts you have about yourself to positive self-statements. For example, instead of thinking ‘I’ am no good at presentations’, tell yourself ‘I can do this’. This positive attitude can have a surprising impact on your confidence.
3. Control your emotions. When you understand your emotions impact on your behaviour, it can give you more control over them. Assertiveness is about controlling your emotions and expressing them appropriately. For example, knowing that you are quick to rise to the bait in confrontational situations, can help you develop strategies to cope with such or similar situations when they arise.
4. Communicate assertively, effectively and audibly. Use plain English for effective communication. Do not use overly complicated words or acronyms that the receiver may not understand. The essence is to get your message across effectively. Use assertive statements such as ‘I think’, ‘In my opinion’, ‘I understand’, and ‘I feel’. Think about what you are going to say before and how best you can say it for it to be effective. Be clear, distinct, direct and accurate. Practise speaking out loud. Try this a few times to improve any point you have picked up on. Make a video recording of you speaking your argument out loud.
5. Welcome others' opinions. Equal communication, negotiation and compromise are fundamental to assertiveness. It involves letting others express their opinions. You are only being assertive if you stand up for your own rights in a way that does not violate the rights of others. Practise what you are going to say and how you are going to say it.
6. Evaluate your progress. Learn to evaluate your progress every time you try out your assertiveness, you may ask a confidant to also help in evaluating your progress. Questions you should ask yourself: ‘how did I fare during this interaction?’, ‘how did I handle that?’, ‘what did I do well?’ and ‘what might I do differently next time?’. This will keep you on track and help you identify areas for development.
7. Accept that failures or setbacks are inevitable. Don’t let them get you down, but learn from them. It is important to recognise your successes and keep your failures in perspective.
A note of caution
Do not become too assertive, this may lead to arrogance, you may think you have the superior opinion and begin to stop listening to others despite them having good ideas. This will only act to alienate your colleagues and damage relationships. A little assertion at the right time can be a highly effective way of developing your profile and self-confidence.
Building self-confidence: Preparing yourself for success! http://www.mindtools.com/selfconf.html
11 Easy ways to build Self-confidence https://www.liveyourtruestory.com/11-easy-ways-to-build-self-confidence/
Building Assertiveness in 4 Steps by Clay Tucker-Ladd, (Ph.D). https://psychcentral.com/blog/building-assertiveness-in-4-steps/
How to be assertive: asking for what you want firmly and fairly. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/Assertiveness.htm
Blessing Onyegeme-Okerenta (PhD) is Commonwealth Academic Fellow
Senior Lecturer - Medical Biochemistry and Molecular Toxicology
Department of Biochemistry, Faculty of Science
University of Port Harcourt