Why Professional Women Should Never Apologize for Being Confident

By Kendra E. Davenport, Chief Development Officer, Operation Smile

Much is written about confidence possessed by successful leaders and how that self-assurance draws people to them, inspiring people to follow their lead. But there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.

For women, this line is difficult to straddle and critical judgement of female leaders for being confident is not just levied by men — other women can be equally critical. The qualities we admire and serve as examples of charisma and competence in men are often frowned upon in women. What is frequently referred to in men as assertiveness is called aggressiveness when exhibited by women, especially in the workplace.

To become a leader, women are often told they must adopt masculine traits. However, when they behave like men as leaders, they are frequently seen as domineering and are often thought to be less likable than their male counterparts.

This presents a tricky conundrum for women, who have for decades had to “be better” than their male coworkers to advance at the same pace and be paid equally for their efforts.

While little has changed in the past 40 years, there are signs that things are changing for the better. Women are gaining ground and being recognized more widely for their perspectives and contributions in the business world. Beyond adding to the diversity of any workplace, studies prove that women are often highly skilled in the following areas:

  • Negotiation
  • Multitasking
  • Progressive Thinking
  • Problem Solving

Research also shows women in the workplace are typically highly ethical, possess a strong work ethic, foster positivity, display empathy and possess higher levels of emotional intelligence.

Combating Nonprofit Industry Norms

Fortunately, few industries remain entirely dominated by men and even some of those are showing signs of change. In the nonprofit industry, women comprise 75 percent of the workforce according to the Center for Global Development, but just a few years ago, a study conducted by GuideStar found that of nonprofits with annual budgets of $50 million or more, just 18% had a female CEO.

A conference hall with mostly women, Kendra sits at the front.
As you can see, many of my colleagues are women, but most of my colleagues in senior leadership are men.

I think women who vocalize the need for equality in the workplace are frequently mistakenly thought of as polarizing. As one of them, I can honestly say I value diversity in the office and regard the role men play in creating a diverse workplace as equally important. But the pressure women feel to conform to male norms at play in today’s working world makes it doubly difficult for them to find the appropriate balance when it comes to asserting their opinions.

As a woman who has worked exclusively in the nonprofit arena since 1988, I’ve struggled with the binary choices so many of us face:

  • Go along to get along, be content with the job you have, and risk not advancing or setting your sights higher.
  • Work hard to advance and risk being labeled as power-hungry, self-centered, arrogant, or worse.

Therein lies the line on which women with even a scintilla of ambition walk.

I’ve given this dilemma a great deal of thought, as it has presented itself in many of the jobs I’ve held throughout my career. But I haven’t let the short-lived uncertainty I feel from time to time prevent me from working toward my professional goals or, as I achieve them, or from constantly setting new goals. That’s not to say the process and machinations I’ve gone through have been easy — they have not.

The truth is that despite being blessed by the guidance of several professional mentors whose wisdom I have often sought, none of them have enthusiastically encouraged me to keep working to gain more responsibility, autonomy, decision-making power, operational authority, and commensurate compensation. Instead, even those mentors, whose advice I value, have questioned my quest to continue advancing.

While the sentiment that I should be content with my station and what I have managed to achieve thus far in my career is not always spoken, their silence is deafening. For that reason, I work hard to encourage women I work with to strive for more and commit themselves to advancing. That encouragement, however, is only part of what I believe women in positions of authority should do to ensure that other women reach their full potential.

We must consciously work to clear a path, to recognize high achievers openly and consistently and actively work to promote them.

That’s the only way we move from being the exception to being closer to the rule. That’s the only way ambition in a woman will ever be regarded as a desirable quality and not a character flaw. That’s the only way assertive professional women will be recognized for their strength of character, drive and confidence, and not labeled as “aggressive.”

To My Fellow “Aggressive” Professional Women

I urge you to keep pushing, keep striving, keep pressing for change, acceptance, and respect. Don’t doubt yourself. When and if you find few supportive of your desire to achieve more and overcome professional hurdles that hold you in place, dig deeper to find your reserve of inner confidence, tap into it and keep working.

We have come a long way together, but we have a long way to go. Together, we can create the change we envision and help move more women into leadership positions. We can bring the 18% of nonprofit CEOs who are women closer to 50% or maybe even more — to make up for lost time.

Kendra and her three daughters.
Kendra and her three daughters.
As a mother to three beautiful young women, creating a professional environment where women can be confident is important to me.

But make no mistake, this demands that women champion themselves and each other by raising our voices to ensure that all women receive what they have earned and deserve. Now, more than any time in recent history, it is critical that we embrace women in the workplace and encourage them to stay.

Don’t let the criticism of others confuse you; being assertive does not make you aggressive. By asserting yourself, you demonstrate self-confidence and your belief in yourself.

Never apologize for being confident and remember; confidence is like a muscle: the more you work it, the stronger it grows.

Kendra Davenport is the Chief Development Officer for Operation Smile and manages global development strategy, brand, marketing and public relations. She previously served as the president of the Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, the vice president of institutional advancement and external affairs at Africare. Kendra has also supported development at Project HOPE, the Population Reference Bureau, International SeaKeepers Society, First Candle and the SIDS Alliance, and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in English and Communications from Chestnut Hill College and is currently working towards an Executive Master of Policy Leadership from Georgetown University McCourt School of Public Policy. Additionally, she is CFRE International certified as a fundraising executive, and volunteers her skills and expertise to assist the Loudoun County government, Leadership Roundtable and Georgetown University.

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