How can organisations help women increase their confidence at work?

Updated: Jul 8

confident women presenting and pointing at a screen in ARUP

The issue of confidence at work frequently comes up with my clients - not exclusively with women but often so. I was discussing this recently with a (male) business contact who asked, quite reasonably “why is confidence in the workplace such an issue for so many women?”

I had to think about that one - many reasons come to mind - the idea that a leader needs to have certain personality traits, the experience of being constantly interrupted by men or spending the first years of your life being told that as a girl you should be “good”, “helpful”, “work hard” and “do what they’re told” (see this Forbes article for more on this last point)

Most blogs and articles on this subject focus on what individual women can do to improve their own confidence. But placing the burden on women neglects the fact that a real, seismic shift will only happen if organisations evolve their culture into a place where everyone, both men and women, and with a range of personality types, feels able to thrive. Gender targets and flexible working policies help, but they don’t always address the deeper issues.

Here are three things that organisations can do to start that shift:

Look for a broader variety of characteristics when identifying future leaders

Having sat in many a “performance moderation” meeting, it became apparent that certain characteristics are seen as “good” or “bad” in a work setting with little evidence or consistency. This article by Forbes articulates clearly how behavioural characteristics can be described differently in men and women.

We’ve all heard how assertiveness tends to be seen as decisiveness in men and aggression in women. Another example of a more typically female trait is collaboration in decision making, which I was told in my career was something that was holding me back. . Performance ratings tend to focus on short term results - technically a year but in reality, people only remember the last three months. The long term steady improvement of results of more considered, quieter personalities are missed in favour of the one-off “star performances” of more forceful personalities. Another area where women tend to lose out is a lack of emphasis placed on the value of having great people skills. The cost of decreased staff engagement and increased employee turnover is rarely considered when there is a focus on short term sales or performance.

Have senior men actively champion and promote women

The importance of women’s networks and female leadership development programmes are well publicised. However, when emerging female talent is mentored by female leaders, there is a risk that it is seen as a “women’s development” issue and separate to an overarching talent strategy. It doesn’t change the attitude and perspectives of the men at the top of organisations and it may make it worse, with a perception that women get special treatment. By actively encouraging male leaders to mentor female managers and have women in meaningful positions on their teams there can be a change to attitudes at the top. This will involve men recognising the unique talents and behavioural traits of female managers and not trying to turn them into clones of themselves.

Change the view of what having a top role really means

confident Indian woman speaking with microphone at a conference

When I look back at my corporate career, one thing I was definitely sure about was that I didn’t want to be a senior partner. I could see some female role models in the next stage of my career but none in the few at the very top. This struck home when I heard a partner say that success for her was to see her children one night a week during weekdays.

As I’ve never been there I can’t say whether this is fact or perception but there exists a view that to be at the very top involves sacrificing family and personal life, whether you are male or female, with or without children. More women than men see this as something they don't want, perhaps as women seem less defined by the work they do - about the only benefit from being excluded from the workplace for many years.

Do these roles really need to be all-encompassing? With new technologies and a great team, working in smarter ways is it not time to change this? Or is my perception of senior female leaders the case because many women who rise that high have perfectionist tendencies and are maybe spending more time in the role than is necessary? Don’t get me wrong, I know these jobs are hard, that they take long hours and great talent - but just as we now have a different view of what makes a good leader, shouldn’t we also have a different view of how a senior leadership role needs to be carried out?

Three things organisations can do, that seem small in theory, much harder in reality. How many could be implemented in your organisation?

Please do add to the debate - I would love to hear your views.

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