Why confidence is the key to advancing careers

Happy business woman working together online on a tablet, menopause

Article by Wendy Bennett, customer service director, DMA Group

Whenever I’m asked to offer advice for women on advancing their careers and getting into senior roles, I always find it difficult to give a categoric answer.

There are so many variables and moving parts, and if a silver bullet-style piece of advice existed we would be working against a drastically different backdrop today.

It must be said that during my career of 30 years some promising strides have been made in terms of female participation in the engineering sector. But when it comes to senior positions, the figures still make for pretty depressing reading – of all the chief executives in the FTSE 350, just 13 are women.

I’ve worked in predominantly male environments for most of my 30 working years, and the greatest challenge I have faced is overcoming bias against women.

I will never forget the early days when I worked as the first female on a helpdesk for a company, mainly because I lost count of the times a plumber would call and ask to speak to someone technical even though I had introduced myself and my role.

This pattern has repeated itself at times in senior roles. Challenging or inquisitive female minds are all too often seen as threatening or even ‘difficult’, yet the same behaviour in male peers is often praised. 

Fortunately, I have also been able to work with some truly inspiring and exceptional individuals who have recognised the value of gender diversity on merit. It is this that has enabled me to develop and progress my career – a career which I have always wanted to be judged on my abilities and not my gender.

This leads me to my ‘advice’ that I want to offer to other aspiring women: Confidence, and being able to express confidence in your own abilities, is the key to advancing your career.

It is actually one of my early regrets. I wish I had the confidence I have today when I was younger, the belief that I am equal and do not need to compromise just to fit in.

This is even more important for the young women looking to make their mark in 2022, especially given the saturated social media world we live in where the ‘image is everything’ mindset carries such huge potential to diminish confidence in who we are.

Instead, we should celebrate what traits we can bring to the world of business. On the isolated occasions when I have worked alongside other female senior executives, I have found that women share some similar traits that add real value. For instance, the ability to cut through the noise and get to the core of the issue or task are similarities high performing women share. Often this leads to a different perspective being offered, a challenging mindset that with positive collaboration enables business to be conducted both quicker and smarter. Indeed, positive is a critical word, and gender balanced boardrooms are far more likely to operate in harmony as opposed to tension and discord.

Women need the confidence to realise the value of these traits and make a positive case for being elevated into senior positions. Though I lacked some of that confidence early on in my career, it has built up over time and mentorship has played its part in that. I’ve been fortunate enough to have had a number of different mentors who have supported me during various points in my career – try to pair yourself with a diverse set of advisers as they will each have something different to offer.

Paid coaching courses are another form of mentorship that I have found illuminating. One of the most valuable things I gained through two years of monthly sessions was the ability to network at the top level, to communicate and nail that elevator speech. That’s something I’ve definitely had to learn.

However, not everyone is going to be fortunate enough to benefit from paid mentorship at their companies. So, key to making the most out of mentoring is identifying somebody you respect, somebody you think you can learn from but who you can also trust to be honest with you.

Women need to be working in a world where talent and skill are the basis for reward and recognition. Arbitrary gender diversity quotas will not solve the problem.

If more women can have their confidence unlocked, through mentors or otherwise, I believe we will continue to see more female senior leaders thrive on merit, not just in our industry, but across all corners of the economy.

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