Women stunt their careers - unintentionally.

(Comments on a post from HBR Blog Network)

Jill Flynn, Kathryn Heath and Mary Davis Holt start their HBR Blog post like this:

"Having combed through more than a thousand 360-degree performance assessments conducted in recent years, we've found, by a wide margin that the primary criticism men have about their female colleagues is that the women they work with seem to exhibit low self-confidence."

(The emphasis is mine.)

They are principals of Flynn Heath Holt Leadership, a consultancy that has worked with Deloitte, National Geographic, Avery Denison and other companies.

They go on to say it could be a perception issue (women nicely share credit with others and men may perceive that as a lack of self confidence), but they cite a study that was released earlier this year by Europe's Institute of Leadership and Management.  It exposed that women actually report having lower confidence when it comes to their careers. 

The HBR Blog sites the following from the study:

  • "Men were more confident across all age groups, with 70% of males having high or very high levels of self-confidence, compared to 50% of the women surveyed.
  • Half of women managers admitted to feelings of self-doubt about their performance and career, but only 31% of men reported the same.
  • The study also found that this lack of confidence extends to a more cautious approach to applying for jobs and promotions: 20% of men said they would apply for a role despite only partially meeting its job description, compared to 14% of women."

I see these statistics in action in many law firms today - surprising that in Q4 2011, many professional women - accomplished partners - are somehow still feeling "less-than."  And I've certainly seen this with senior women marketing and business development professionals, as well (at various times of my career, me included).

Flynn, Davis and Holt discuss four ways women stunt their careers:

  1. "Being overly modest. We see that men are more willing to take public credit for their successes. Women believe their accomplishments should speak for themselves, and they spend less effort ensuring they get the gold star next to their name. While modesty is a nice character trait, it's naive to believe that your boss, your clients, or your colleagues will recognize your accomplishments if you fly under the radar.
  2. "Not asking. We've seen it over and over again: women fail to get promoted because they fail to step up and apply. It feels personally risky to step-up and ask for a big job or assignment - but there's really no other way. Not asking means you've lost the chance to influence the outcome.
  3. "Blending in. Some women go to great lengths to avoid attention. They don't want to stand out - in meetings, in the boardroom or even in the elevator. A client from one of our workshops told us that her greatest fear was riding the elevator with the CEO. What would she say to him? Would they talk about the weather? But blending in means you are missing opportunities - every single day - to stand out and sell your ideas. Another client we know (also a women) waits in the lobby many mornings in order to ride the elevator with the CEO. Her confidence has never been questioned. 
  4. "Remaining silent. It's not easy to get a word in during meetings, especially when six other colleagues are all fighting for the floor. But failing to speak up and express yourself when you have something relevant to add is a missed chance to get in the game. Getting your point of view across during important discussions is essential for your career.

They conclude by suggesting that most professional women don't need to overhaul their personalities, but rather take small steps forward to ensure that they aren't unconsciously undermining their careers. 

Flynn, Heath and Holt have written a book that is loaded with good advice:  Break Your Own Rules: How to Change the Patterns of Thinking that Block Women's Paths to Power.

 Read more insight at the Law Firm 4.0 Blog.

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