Women In Legal Business Series

Part three: Confidence; is a lack of the confidence the true barrier to our success?   

We have spent the last few months meeting with senior women in law firms to discuss what challenges they face as women, exploring areas such as discrimination, gender pay gap, and returning to work after maternity leave.  Part one focused on the most recurring messages around very subtle or “everyday” sexism that manifests itself in small, every day scenarios.  Part two of our series focused on the topic of returning from maternity leave and negotiating flexible working.

In part three, we focus on confidence, and whether it’s the barrier to women achieving their full potential in the workplace.  This was not something that was on our agenda at the outset of our research, but throughout a number of our interviews it became apparent that a lack of confidence underpins many of the issues women see as barriers to their success.

Many women lack the confidence to push back and communicate what they actually want.  Throughout our research, it was consistently acknowledged that men are much more confident in asking for a pay rise, a promotion or flexible/part time working.  Whilst there are a handful of women who have the confidence and self-belief to get exactly what they want, they fall into a small minority.  Many women aren’t confident enough to push the boundaries and ask for what they really want, particularly around flexible working. This is especially the case if a flexible solution is something that has never been done before. This means that they end up settling for what’s on offer which ultimately leads to resentment and dissatisfaction.

Women are much more cautious in their careers compared to men, and this is something that we see on a day to day basis when we interview female job seekers versus male job seekers.  Women are less likely to take a risk on their career. Over time they end up missing out on opportunities.

As pointed out in the bestselling guide to achieving confidence, The Confidence Code by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, it seems that an important piece of the puzzle in bridging the gender gap is addressing the gender confidence gap. While having more confident women won’t eliminate the unconscious bias or stop more selfassured outspoken women being called bossy or bitchy (where men are simply labelled assertive), it will empower more women to call out bias when they see it, put themselves forward and take more risks that men do. This will see more women moving up the ladder which, in turn, will provide the much needed role models, mentors, sponsors and inspiration for women following below.  This was something many highlighted in our research in legal BD & marketing, that there just weren’t enough inspirational role models at the top.

So how do we tackle this and what steps can you take to build confidence?

1. Ask for what you want 

Sounds so simple but we often dilute what we ask for (or we don’t ask at all) for fear of appearing pushy, difficult or being rejected.  But how can you expect to get what you want if you’re not willing to ask for it? There’s a direct correlation between getting what you want and asking for it – even go one step further; ask for more than you want to get what you want.  Men often get a big promotion or pay rise because they have the self-esteem to ask!  Law firm are much better at offering flexible working than they used to be, so go for it!

2. Say no 

It’s a short little word but it’s one many women struggle to say because we know it’s not the answer people want to hear and let’s face it, we love keeping people happy!  This is particularly prevalent in the legal sector where it seems to be ingrained in female marketers at an early stage in their career to be deferential to partners and not to push back. Next time a partner asks you to do something you don’t think is in your remit say “yes sure, I’ll speak to your/my secretary/someone in the team to make sure that gets done” and reassure them that it will get done but it’s not your job to do it.

3. Don’t be so modest! 

Too often our fear of appearing boastful or arrogant keeps us from talking about what we’re up to. We see this all the time when we interview candidates; women are naturally self-deprecating whereas men are much more forthcoming in telling you what they’ve achieved.  Don’t be afraid to blow your own trumpet and own the good work you’ve done.

4. Push back (and stop apologising for your opinion) 

Yes, you’re a nice person and you’re loathe to be a trouble-maker, but if all you ever do is nod your head, smile politely then you are selling yourself short. As social beings we are wired to belong to a “tribe”, but too often we let our fear of disapproval keep us from confidently expressing our opinion. Again, this seems to be prevalent amongst female marketers in the legal sector who are terrified of treading on partners’ toes.  Pushing back is not about being pushy. It’s simply owning your right to see things differently than others, and ironically often gains more respect with partners. Of course, women have been called bossy or even bitchy for simply speaking their truth, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t speak up. The language we choose to use here is important so don’t be meek and mild, and start your point with “I’m not sure if this would work but…. ” or “you might not think this is a good idea but….”, be bold, why put doubt in others’ minds?!

5. Be a daredevil 

A research study by the University of California found that women are far less likely than men to engage in high risk activities than men because we are more sensitive to the potentially negative outcomes. While this clearly has its advantages (for instance women have a far lower likelihood of ever suffering a spinal injury), our lower “risk tolerance” also means we can be more reticent to take risks over all, including those which pose no physical danger at all and would ultimately benefit us. So if there’s a goal you’d really love to achieve such as a promotion, or being more involved in certain work/projects, embrace the discomfort of risk taking, dial up your inner daredevil and just do it.  Write a list of three things you really want from your role or career in the next 12 months and go for it.

6. Ditch the guilt 

Some guilt is healthy. Like if you haven’t paid your taxes or you’ve done something that’s violated a core value. Very often though our guilt is driven by social norms and rules that we’ve unwittingly bought into. Women often fall into the trap of feeling guilty whether they choose to put their career first or let it take a back seat whilst they focus on raising children.  Some say “You can have it all” but we know this isn’t the case for most women.  Until it becomes the social norm for men to take shared parental leave or part-time work, women will be forced to juggle.  But the main thing is, don’t feel guilty for the decisions you choose in life – you’re no doubt doing a great job at home and at work.

7. Expand your circle 

The more people who know who you are and what you want, the more people who can help you get there. So think about your network and what it can do for you.  If you need to work part-time or flexibly, are you connecting with and communicating this with the HR team, your line manager or partners who can ultimately help you achieve and manage this?  Never underestimate the impact of your relationships to open doors, so don’t be shy, get out there and get connected!  The more visible you are, the more recognition and respect you will earn.

8. Change your story 

Every day you live with a little voice in your head continually telling you who you are, what you can do, and just as importantly, what you can’t. We all do. These are known as limiting beliefs.  So if you’ve been telling yourself a story that you’re too old, too young, too timid, too inexperienced, not a fee earner/partner, or not enough of something to take your seat at the table and be a powerful force for change, try telling yourself another story and see what possibilities open up for you. Think positively and you’re half way there.

9. Risk more rejection 

It’s not rejection you’re afraid of, it’s how you will feel because of what you make rejection mean… a personal inadequacy on your part; evidence that you are “less than worthy” in some way. But it doesn’t mean that at all. The truth is that you need to risk a lot of rejections if you want to get ahead in your business, career and any area of your life. Speak to any successful business leader and they will tell you this.  Part of our research showed that women are often afraid to ask for what they really want when it comes to a promotion, flexible working or a pay rise, because they don’t think the firm will agree, but if you don’t ask….

To quote Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and creator of the LeanIn movement, “Fortune does favour the bold and you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”