Summary: The following story was shared anonymously by a woman leader. She recalls the experience that helped her overcome her inhibitions and pursue an overseas chief of party position. To other women, she urges them to pursue positions that they’re not 100 percent sure they’re qualified for. This story is featured as part of the ongoing Women Working in Global Development Campaign, through a partnership between Devex and Quantum Impact.
I was working in our headquarters as a D.C.-based Chief of Party when someone from the United States Agency for International Development approached me about leading a project in Asia. I was really excited about the opportunity, but I thought about all the things I didn’t know. I had been overseas, managed a lot of short-term work. Still, I didn’t know if I could do the job. I was nervous about leading a team, especially with colleagues at work having told me that maybe I was a good project manager but not a team manager. I worried whether other people in my company thought I could do it.
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One evening after I’d been approached about the field-based Chief of Party assignment, I was in my apartment and the news was on in the background. It was a report about gendered differences in job applications. A number of women in the workforce had been interviewed. The message of the report that I heard was that the majority of women reported applying for positions that they felt 100 percent qualified to do. In contrast, men reported applying for positions if they felt at least 60 percent qualified.
I remember a lightbulb going off in my head. I thought to myself, “I’m 60 percent confident that if I went out on that project, I could do a good job. I don’t know certain things — setting up a new office, setting up registration, speaking a language I don’t speak now, managing a large team. But I am at least 60 percent confident.”
And I took that job. In going out as Chief of Party, I decided I was going to build a team. Of course I focused on technical supervision, counterpart relations, and administration. But my overarching message to myself all the time was to be a mentor. I believe I did a good job and was sufficiently qualified. And I would say I gained even more than that other 40 percent in terms of professional growth.
I would share that message with any woman that I work with now — no matter the things you’re telling yourself about what you have not done yet that might not make you a good fit, if you can already do 60 percent of the work, if you feel at least 60 percent confident, then go for it.
The very fact of looking at our weaknesses — i.e. the 40 percent that we might not yet know — is very introspective, and it’s one of the qualities I think contributes to women being good leaders.
The real issue is what we as people, as colleagues, decide to do with that information, knowing our weaknesses. When we do something about it, i.e. taking an opportunity, we create an opportunity to grow ourselves, and an opportunity to be a good leader.
Quantum’s take: A vast confidence gap separates the sexes
The findings that our storyteller mentions come from a Hewlett Packard internal report, which found that female employees applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job, whereas male employees were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.
Now more than ever in modern history, women are as competitive for positions as men are. Women in America now earn more college and graduate degrees than men do. We make up half the workforce, and we are closing the gap in middle management. Half a dozen global studies, conducted by the likes of Goldman Sachs, Columbia University, and others have found that companies employing women in large numbers outperform their competitors on every measure of profitability. Yet, men have continued to get promoted faster and be paid more. The statistics are well known: At the top, especially, women are not fully represented, and their numbers are barely increasing. In the global health sector, the International Labour Organization estimates that women make up 70 percent of the workforce, yet occupy only 1 in 4 leadership positions. In its 2018 Realizing Diversity, Accelerating Impact study, Quantum Impact found that 2 out of 3 organizations in the global social impact sector do not have gender-balanced leadership teams.
What explains the glass ceiling then? Some observers argue that cultural and institutional barriers are the cause. Parental responsibilities contribute to a complicated emotional tug between home and work lives, more present for many women than for men, and ultimately result in leaving the workforce before reaching the senior management promotion stage.
Others argue that the glass ceiling for promotion is tied to gender discrimination. For example, Lean In’s 2017 Women in the Workplace report finds that women get promoted 18 percent less often than men do when they ask for promotions. The report predicts that if entry-level women were promoted at the same rate as their male peers, the number of women at the senior vice president and C-suite levels would more than double.
Journalists Katie Kay and Claire Ship argue that women’s acute lack of self-confidence explains the glass ceiling effect in The Confidence Code. When they interviewed male executives, they found that men also believed that self-doubt is holding back women at the companies where they worked. However, they shied away from saying anything, because they were terrified of sounding sexist. One man interviewed built in confidence to the performance to address the issue.
A growing body of evidence shows just how devastating this lack of confidence can be. Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. In 2011, the Institute of Leadership and Management, in the United Kingdom, surveyed British managers about how confident they feel in their professions. Half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of male respondents.
Linda Babcock, a professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University and the author of Women Don’t Ask, has found in studies of business-school students, that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do, and that when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men do.
The fix: What can managers and HR leaders do?
The women working at HP saw the hiring process as one where the skills and experiences outlined in job qualifications were more important than advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise. What held them back from applying was not a mistaken perception about themselves, but a mistaken perception about the hiring process itself.
As highlighted by our storyteller, ensuring awareness of the “confidence gap” can help to lift up women to break the glass ceiling. HR managers can educate women about the hiring process and that it is OK to apply if they don’t meet every single one of the criteria.
For example, HR managers can use language in the job descriptions that clearly indicates that qualifications are desired, not required. Workplaces can also neutralize the perceived sexism of discussing this issue for women and men supervisors who wish to talk about this with female reports. Executives and leaders who are women should be encouraged to speak openly about their own trajectory to leadership within companies.
Leadership can do their part to reach their internal gender parity commitments, and appoint more women to senior leadership positions. Dr. Tedros, who was elected director-general of the World Health Organization in 2017, appointed women to fill 60 percent of senior leadership positions, marking the most female representation at that senior management level in the organization’s history.
Finally, women and men alike can be empowered through career coaching that increases their self-awareness, self-confidence, and resilience to achieve leadership goals. This can be done through external coaches, as well as creating internal buddy systems where senior leaders are matched with rising female talent. The leaders should be held accountable for success of their coachee with results tied to performance review and compensation.