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Opinion: I want to stop women feeling like frauds in a corporate culture designed for our grandfathers

A co-founder of the Sunday Business Post, Aileen O’Toole learned some valuable lessons about operating in a male-dominated sector.

Aileen O'Toole

WHAT WAS IT like to have been the only female working in male-dominated sector? It’s a question I’ve been asked many times over the course of my professional life. The answer I used to give was that as a business journalist, being female was an advantage, as stories sometimes came my way more easily than with my male colleagues. Also, I’d reply, I achieved much in my early career thanks to a highly supportive male boss.

Asked the same question today and I’d answer it differently. I’d cover low self-confidence, my tendency to play down my achievements and to agonise over how well I was reconciling a full-on career with family responsibilities. I’d also call out the macho culture that prevailed in media and how disconnected I felt from it.

I would talk about the influence that the male boss had in a very different way. Today, I’d describe him as my sponsor who advocated for me and helped me to overcome resistance to the promotion of a woman to a senior role.

What I realise now is how much of what I was experiencing in my early career, and which I kept to myself, was no different to other women. More importantly, I now know what I could have done to improve my coping skills and my ability to overcome some of the barriers women face in advancing their careers.

Little has changed

Through my involvement with WoW, a voluntary female leadership initiative, I’ve explored these themes in depth. It has led me to realise how little has changed in the last number of decades and how, despite the noise about gender diversity, that women continue to face infinitely more workplace challenges than men.

Corporate culture is in a time warp and was designed for our fathers and grandfathers. It doesn’t take account of major demographic changes such as more women at work and more parents trying to juggle family and work responsibilities. Unconscious bias – quick judgments and assessments of people and situations based on our backgrounds or our personal experiences – prevails and negatively impacts on women’s promotional prospects.

The transition from education to the workplace can be difficult for women. While outperforming men academically, women enter the workforce as equals but within a few years they begin to fall behind their male counterparts.

Confidence and an ability to promote yourself

In the workplace, women find that the diligence and competence do not always produce the payback they did in college. Confidence and an ability to promote yourself are attributes that are valued – and are among the many reasons why men move up the corporate ladder more quickly than women.

The academic research is compelling. It shows that in comparison with men, women lack
confidence, continuously underestimate their abilities and are loath to own their own achievements.

“There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO admits, in a textbook example of what’s called Imposter Syndrome.

So what can women do to overcome confidence and indeed other barriers they face in the workplace? Here are some of the tips recommended in #WomanUp, an action plan on female leadership which WoW has published based on extensive research process and the learnings from WoW’s development programme, designed to build confidence and leadership skills among aspiring female leaders.

Firstly, it’s important to recognise that a lack of confidence is often a default setting. Taking a simple confidence test like this one can help to give you a baseline. Getting support and even coping mechanisms from trusted colleagues and friends helps.

Confidence Code

Of particular value, though, are more formal relationships with mentors (whose role is to provide a safe space and give unbiased support) and sponsors (usually more senior executives who put you forward for opportunities).

Improving confidence is hard work. According to the authors of Confidence Code, a highly accessible book that we consider a “must read”, you can improve your confidence but it does require taking risks, determined persistence, and sometimes bitter failure.

“Nothing builds confidence like taking action, especially when the action involves risk and failure,” the book recommends.

Women don’t need to behave like men to succeed in the corporate world. Instead, they should play to their considerable strengths and “flex” but not compromise on their natural styles by:

  • Building a higher profile for themselves within the work environment
  • Seizing new opportunities and particularly getting critical P&L or budget responsibilities
  • Not being shy when it comes to pay negotiations

One of the many reasons why gender pay gaps prevail is that women tend not to negotiate as well for themselves as men. But you learn how to plan and handle your own pay negotiations – and not under-estimate the value you bring to your employer.

When it comes to reconciling work and family responsibilities, our advice is to work out what’s important to you – family, career, sport, health and well-being – and strive to achieve the optimum mix that works. If the “always-on” frenetic culture of some organisations works for you, then go for it. If it isn’t, then select what does, set boundaries around your working life and stick to them.

Aileen O’Toole is one of the founders of WoW, a voluntary female leadership initiative, which has published #WomanUp, an action plan on female leadership. The plan can be downloaded here.

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