I think there tends to be a lot of hand-wringing and much ado about nothing within one popular topic for working women: confidence.
Let me be 100% clear about what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that confidence doesn’t matter for career advancement, professional success, perceptions by all sorts of people important to achieving things big and small in the work environment. I absolutely think confidence matters and that studies cited in books like Lean In and the Confidence Code (among many others) specifically demonstrate both the practical importance of confidence and how women who self-doubt can hurt their own careers and prospects for success.
So what am I saying? All I’m really saying that we don’t have to pry into the depths of our individual (much less, our gender’s) internal psychology if what we want on a social / corporate level is concrete improvement and change. For example, let’s say that I’m a CEO of a company looking at evidence that my female staff don’t apply for certain internal openings because they don’t feel as confident as my male staff that they’ll actually get the job. What would I do about it?
It doesn’t take a deeply thoughtful person to realize that I (my direct reports or HR team) could simply send a communication or make a firm-wide speech about how we are looking for people to apply internally and reward the ambition to grow at the company, regardless of whether a particular person is successful in getting a new role. I have no idea whether this simple act, alone, would work, but it certainly couldn’t hurt my female participation rate. Moreover, I could also take a number of more heavy-handed intervention steps if things didn’t improve.
These situations do happen. Forbes reports that a few years ago, at Hewlett-Packard, an internal employee survey showed evidence that women were not applying for promotions at the same rate as men. I don’t know what they did about it, but this week’s Harvard Business School blog post reminded me again that we may be better off potentially trying to change behaviour rather than dissect and modify an internal issue. For example, the Harvard survey in question found that a higher proportion of women (compared to men) don’t apply for positions because they worry about “putting [them]selves out there if they were likely to fail”. If companies find this to be true, and want to maximise application rates from women they could simply reassure internal candidates they want everyone interested to apply. Externally, they could simply modify the wording of job postings so there is either friendlier language or an explanation of how applications are reviewed. I suspect that most large companies don’t want to admit they use filtering software to limit the huge funnel of candidates by keyword phrases on resumes but I have never particularly seen the harm of admitting this is merely one layer of the review process. It also may remove the stigma of “failure” if failure is largely impersonal (and even algorithmic) at the first stage.
In summary: Ladies, whether you feel like you’ve got a chance or not, if you’re interested in a job, don’t think about it too much. Just apply for it already!