Stephenson Coaching

What’s Holding Women Back from Assertively Speaking in Public? | Part 1

Part 1 – The Root Causes

According to a study by the University of Cambridge, women are two and a half times less likely to ask questions in academic seminars than men[1]. Some of the reasons given by the students questioned are:

“not feeling clever enough”, “couldn’t work up the nerve”, “worried that I had misunderstood the content” and “the speaker was too eminent/intimidating”.

These are the same explanations my female clients share with me when they say they’re uncomfortable about speaking up in meetings. Fundamentally, it boils down to a lack of self-confidence that causes women to shy away from being in the limelight in the workplace.


As a Public Speaking coach I’ve worked with so many highly competent women who hold themselves back from speaking up in meetings and assertively expressing themselves in public. I, myself, have struggled so much to come out of the shadows and allow myself to be visible in my role as a Public Speaking coach.

In fact, so much of what my clients tell me resonates deeply within me, i.e. “I don’t want to appear big-headed”, “I’m afraid that people will realise I’m not as competent as they think I am”, “I don’t want to appear aggressive”, “I’m afraid people won’t like me if I speak my mind”.

These are the limiting beliefs we’ve grown up with, as women, and they stop us from reaching our true potential today.

We usually think that it’s the outward signs of our nervousness (e.g. sweating, trembling, blushing, dry mouth, forgetting our train of thought, etc.) that stop us from giving impactful speeches. In reality, though, these are just the symptoms. The cause goes much deeper and to overcome this obstacle, we need to understand what’s really at stake for us, as women, when we speak up in meetings or when we give a talk to an audience.

What are the root causes of our fear of Public Speaking?

Subconsciously, each time we voice our opinions and knowledge in public, we’re affected by the injunctions and drivers[2] we received during our childhood.

Let’s take some examples of injunctions:

  1. “Don’t be important”: maybe you heard things like, “Children are to be seen and not heard” or you were told you weren’t important because you were born a girl. The consequence of this injunction on Public Speaking seems obvious!
  2. “Don’t think”: maybe you were discouraged from having a different opinion to your parents or other adults. As a result, how can you assertively express a different opinion to your colleagues in a meeting if you’ve grown up with this injunction?!
  3. “Don’t be who you are”: maybe you weren’t encouraged to have your own personality and maybe even your parents wanted you to be a boy instead of a girl. This can make you feel like an impostor when you Speak in Public.
  4. “Don’t make it in your life”: maybe your parents didn’t want you to surpass them or maybe it was only boys in your family who had the permission to be successful. It’s hard for you, today, to have an important career, especially if it means being more successful than your father or brother. This may cause you to hold yourself back and not take opportunities to become visible.

From my coaching experience, I’ve also noticed that many women have the drivers “Please Me” and “Be Perfect”.

The first driver, “Please Me”, means that the woman doesn’t want to say or do something that her colleagues or boss won’t like. This stops her from expressing controversial opinions in meetings. Or it can even go further. For example, if she makes herself visible, she might be promoted and this will mean a greater workload. As a result, her family might not be happy with her because she’s not available enough for them.

With the driver “Be Perfect”, the woman might be afraid she won’t be good enough and so she’ll refuse opportunities to talk in conferences or meetings. Or, again, she might be afraid that getting a potential promotion will mean she won’t spend as much time at home and she’ll no longer be the perfect mother she strives to be.

We tend to think that it’s the fear of failure that stops us from performing to our full potential. However, it can also be due to the fear of success.

Let’s take an example: a woman might, subconsciously, be telling herself that becoming more visible in meetings and conferences could lead to her being promoted. The consequences of this promotion might be:

  • More time at work and less time for her family
  • A higher wage than her husband
  • Not being liked so much because she’ll have to make some unpopular decisions

When we bear in mind the injunctions, drivers and limiting beliefs that we’ve grown up with, it’s no wonder so many women want to stay in the shadows, shying away from Public Speaking!


In the 2nd of this series of articles, I ask the question:

Is it really possible for a woman to transform herself from being unconfident and self-doubting to becoming a charismatic, impactful Public Speaker?



I’ve created a coaching programme Release Your Powerful Female Voice to help you to understand what’s holding you back, then to determine what your free, true self really wants.


Would you like to learn more about how my coaching offer can help YOU to bring fulfillment into your life by Releasing your own Powerful Female Voice?

Please do get in touch for an introductory call.



[1] Source:

[2] Injunctions and Drivers are terms used in Transactional Analysis.

There are 12 Injunctions in TA. They are negative parental commands that we’ve received through modelling, the rewarding of certain behaviours or direct expression. Sometimes, they are not even given by the parent, the child creates them through misinterpretation.

There are 5 Drivers. They’re developed at an early age when we start to understand what’s approved or disapproved of by the adults around us. They’re our way of adapting to our environment so that we feel ok about ourselves.

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