Oft quoted research has found that a woman has to be 95% sure about a role before she’ll consider applying and then still worry about the 5% they lack, whereas a man is happy to put himself forward if he has 40% of the required skills and fully expects to be interviewed. Is this an urban myth or does it demonstrate one of the key challenges faced by women in business today?
As a headhunter recruiting CFOs and CEOs, I worked with mostly men for over 20 years. After creating Inspire in 2008 – a business network for senior Board-level women, I began to notice there was a fundamental difference in the behaviours, communication styles and the way women represented themselves. This prompted me to dig deeper to understand the factors and behaviours that have influenced their success and define ways of altering those that give rise to self-imposed limitations.
Many of the men and women I have interviewed over the years admitted they had not mapped a career plan and had fallen into some of their roles, but their approach and attitude to overall career management was markedly different. The men tended to be much more focused and single-minded in their approach with a strong determination and drive to succeed. They showed very little self-doubt in their abilities and were unfazed by knock backs or bumps along the way.
Women however, tended to sweat the small stuff and take criticism or development needs to heart. They worried about their suitability for a role, often ignoring their many strengths or the very skills that others recognise and find attractive. Combined with a fear of failure or looking foolish often this has meant they were passed over for promotions or their career development was stalled.
Self-belief is a huge contributory factor. The impression I have gained from years of interviewing is that men have the ability to recognise their strengths and sell themselves in a self-confident and promotional way. This shows in their body language and inspires confidence in the listener or interviewer.
Whereas women have shown a tendency to avoid promoting themselves and feel anxious about boasting or over-selling their capabilities, preferring to be judged on their performance alone. Many of the women I have met, who on the surface appear composed, polished and are highly regarded in their chosen field, have admitted to high anxiety and the dread of being ‘found out’. They have fallen into the ‘imposter syndrome’, a feeling that they have been very lucky and are grateful to have gotten to where they are in their careers, rather than feeling that they earned the right because of their talent and experience.
Self-belief stems from knowing who you are, what makes you authentic and a faith in your capabilities, but also learning how to celebrate your successes. One of the skills I learned when training as a career coach was to recognise the voice in your head and learn to turn the volume down. Each time the volume rises counteract it with a mental image of one of your achievements. Through practice, the technique becomes more natural and the berating voice in your head remains quiet.
It is not about boasting but rather making people aware of how good you are and not waiting for recognition for a job well done. It is easy to forget that everyone you work with has their own work pressures and agendas and might overlook your exceeding performance. It makes sense then to be proud of your achievement, tell them about it and accept there is nothing wrong in doing so!
An important factor that helped many of the women along the way was a colleague or mentor, often a man, who had identified their potential and firmly propelled them forward, whilst getting them to believe in themselves. The importance of networking cannot be underestimated and is something that women are relatively new to in comparison to men, who have had clubs and networks for a long time. They clearly recognise the value of building strategic alliances and using contacts very early in their careers, which ultimately helps them up the career ladder much quicker.
In one of the podcasts in Inspire’s Diversity Toolkit series, Lady Barbara Judge CBE commented, “Build up relationships with people you trust and create your own private board of directors. Seek their advice when you need guidance – you don’t have to take it, but it could be indispensable”, which is very sound advice.
The final piece of the puzzle is our obsession with comparing ourselves to others. We all do it to some degree but the difference in the drivers between men and women is self-doubt, which seems to affect women so much more. It is such a futile activity, as all your successes and skills sets are unique to you - there is so little to gain from it and potentially so much to lose. The aim should be to set small goals for yourself and celebrate your own success rather than worrying about how well someone else has done
Perhaps the key message should be always remain true to yourself, make sure you know and believe just how good you are and learn how to tell everyone else too!