The May Group’s findings in the recent research for the ANZSOG’s project ‘Not Yet 50/50: Barriers to the Progress of Senior Women in the APS’ indicate women’s lack of confidence as a significant barrier to career advancement. As Deborah herself has previously explained, the underlying reality of these findings is a little more complex than ‘women lacking confidence’, or women being flawed or inadequate. In fact it is a result of implicit messages, cultural conditioning, organisational and poor management practices and unconscious bias, which can lead to women “underestimating their value or second guessing their choices/options”.
Accordingly, men, through the same underlying factors, are seen to have higher levels of self-confidence and conviction of their own merit and success. Within the workplace, they often have little difficulty with self-promotion, making themselves visible, and reaching for any opportunity that presents itself. Personally, with only two years out of University in the workplace, I already have enough firsthand experience of this phenomenon to know that it undoubtedly works for them.
In my first job, I began on the same day as five other brand new hires, two other women and three men. We trained together, develop immediate comradery based on our commonalities and then were split up onto different projects in our location. I was assigned to a project with two of the men, and we were delegated to three different types of roles within the project. The situations and reasoning behind the delegations to the different types of roles, and the ramifications it had on our career progression is also interesting and topical, but begs analysis for another day.
There were a variety of common, leveling factors that linked all the graduates together, and in fact were likely the reasons we were all hired. We all had high levels of education, equal levels of success in that education, common backgrounds, and equal levels of drive, work ethic and ambition that could contribute to our success in the company. The one fundamental thing that set our success in reaching our goals with the company apart, however, was our individual reactions to what was realistic, what was in our reach, and what was not.
The peer who best exemplified this, I will call Fred. All three of us had goals of moving from the section of the company we had been hired into to a much more visible, appealing and somewhat more exclusive section, as well as literally moving from our hire location; Canberra, to Sydney. From our first day at the company management had indicated to us many times that these were unrealistic goals, particularly for recent hires, based pretty solidly on client and company needs. Yet within a year, Fred had achieved both of these milestones, and then was promoted a year after that, another success factor which was rarely reached so soon within the company.
Although I left the company after a realisation over the two years that my passions lay in a very different area, there is possibly just one key thing that sets my success within the company apart from that of Fred’s. When met with the opinion that my immediate goals were unrealistic, I accepted that opinion on face value, and readjusted those goals. I felt lucky to even have such a job straight out of University, and believed the best option was to do my best in the opportunity I had been given and be grateful. Fred clearly felt that no such restriction applied to him. Although we were on good terms both professionally and personally, since we had first met I had often rolled my eyes and been frankly incredulous as his obvious attempts at connecting with leadership, self-promotion and maintaining visibility through any means. Surely that would only get him so far, before management grew tired of his inauthenticity, and someone felt the need to chat to him about the virtues of humility, teamwork, and quietly paying your dues before rewards were offered.
From my experience, I believe that it may not matter whether men are conditioned to have too much confidence, or women too little. What matters is what really does work for your career. Be a Fred. Do and say the things that you think might be presumptuous or overreaching, because chances are, they won’t come off that way as much as you think, and the benefits to your career will far outweigh any faux pas. Perhaps then the research will start to show that women are hindered by their levels of confidence less and less.