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Women often undersell their experience and capabilities, while men don't think twice about it

Eoghan McDermott writes that organisations need to do more to close the gender gap in the workforce.

Eoghan McDermott

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY is tomorrow and its theme is gender parity. It makes sense that women would hold the same amount of leadership positions as their male counterparts. But they don’t.

Achievement in business and politics on the part of women is still the exception rather than the rule. Getting women into positions of power and influence is still a work in progress.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that the gender gap won’t be closed until 2133. 117 years away.

Women in business

35 women came through the general election, more than any other election to date. As a headline it’s great, except it represents only 22% of the available seats.

It’s an interesting percentage, given that in 2014 the Grant Thornton International Business Report said the proportion of women in senior roles was stuck at 24%.

In Irish academia it’s even worse. Women represent just 19% of the professors, and no woman to date has ever headed an Irish public university. Looking at those stats it’s easy to understand why  the WEF is so depressingly conservative in their predictions.

Bain, a global management consultancy, maintains that top of the barriers stopping women from achieving leadership positions is “competing priorities.” Pretty much that a woman has two jobs – one at the office, the other at home. Women take charge of the procreation thing and then juggle work and family.

Men get the jammy bit in career and parenting. They get a wonderful bundle of joy while still being able to plough on with their careers. Women do the hard labour. Literally and metaphorically. It’s their career that’s more likely to take a back seat. A client of mine who has two children said to me that she is “at least two years behind” her male peers because of maternity leave and time off with her kids.

Researchers from the University of Berkley refer to this as the “Baby-Penalty”.

Even when they are physically present, women can be limited by unconscious bias, according to Bain. Bosses tend to value characteristics and styles they themselves have. Given that most bosses are male, you can come to your own conclusions.

Underselling yourself 

And then there’s underselling yourself. It’s been repeatedly noted that women undersell their experience and capabilities. A Hewlett Packard report into their own hiring found women would apply only for jobs they felt they were 100% qualified to do, whereas men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet only 60% of the job requirements.

Underqualified men don’t think twice about, as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook called it, ”leaning in”. Women do. And it does them no favours. But let’s not play blame-the-victim, here. Organisations could do some relatively easy things to make the workplace more friendly to women. Not easier. Just more friendly.

Friends seek to facilitate the potential of their friends. Similarly workplaces could, rather than having early morning or late afternoon meetings, have them in the middle of the day so people with children aren’t pressured to make a choice. Or facilitate flexible working hours. Both would be useful to both men and women, but particularly women.

Secondly they can ensure that their hiring and selection processes are absolutely transparent, and based on evidence of achievement rather than bias. Train their interviewers how to interview, assess candidates and have a clear and objective marking scheme.

Mentoring 

Another thing is mentoring. It has always been around but now organisations are becoming more formal with it and rolling out mentoring programmes. To paraphrase Sandburg’s line about leaning in, we are now seeing women, and men, lean down to help the next generation.

Organisations should get senior members of staff to support more junior ones and guide them up the ladder.

However, it can take time for organisations to make any change, let alone a cultural change. From my experience as a career advisor there are some immediate things that women can do themselves to help their career progression.

The first is to market yourself. Let your boss know about the good work that you do. Don’t hide it under a bushel. The second is not to fear rejection – if you think you could do a job, apply for it. It’s incredible how often women say “I’m not sure I can do this role” when a fella with less experience will say “I should be doing this job already”.

There is no place for modesty in job interviews. If you have done something and it’s relevant to the job, tell the panel about it. Don’t wait for them to drag it out of you.

Networking is also crucial. Men tend to find it easier to ‘network’. They often have ready-made networks through the likes of sports clubs. Women need to develop a network internally, and externally with, for example, by joining relevant industry groups. Every person you meet in work is a connection. Build relationships with them.

And finally, never postpone progress. Don’t wait to start planning and thinking seriously about your career. By the age of 40 men often have a lot of the ground work done – they have additional qualifications, a wide network developed, and a track record of success in roles.

If we believe the World Economic Forum, gender-parity is another century away. We can’t wait that long. It won’t fix itself. Organisations need to step up. But a lot of it is in your hands, too.

Eoghan McDermott is a Director of The Communications Clinic and is Head of Training and Careers there. www.communicationsclinic.ie. Follow him on Twitter@EoghanMcDermott

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