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Redefining Career Confidence: Moving Beyond Stereotypes

Approximately a decade ago, Hewlett-Packard conducted an internal study revealing that men tend to apply for a job when they meet approximately 60% of the qualifications, whereas women typically apply only if they meet 100% of the requirements1. This statistic was widely circulated, leading to the conclusion that women need to have more confidence in their abilities.

The Truth Behind Statistics

Subsequently, another study was conducted to delve deeper into this issue2.  This revealed that only 10% of female respondents cited a lack of confidence in their ability to perform the job well as the reason for not applying. This statistic, though, was nowhere near as widely circulated and so the conclusion that it was due to low confidence remained.

What’s even more interesting is that the number of men who gave this as the reason was higher at 12%. Yet, this lack of confidence among men received little attention.

What is particularly intriguing in this second study is both men and women equally agreed that the main reason for not applying was the belief that ‘they wouldn’t be hired due to not meeting the qualifications and not wanting to waste their time and energy’, with 46.4% of men and 40.6% of women stating this as their main reason. Fair enough!

The aftermath of the Hewlett-Packard study was the emergence of self-doubt among women. Even today, we hear people referencing it, yet over the past eight years of running a global virtual programme where over 9000 women have graduated, we have consistently observed that the responses to our surveys and polls often differ from the narrative perpetuated by this, and other, statistics. This underscores the importance of recognising that employee surveys leave room for interpretation. Surveys can only provide a limited amount of insight, whereas our live monthly sessions allow us to delve deeper and uncover more nuanced perspectives.

Bridging the Perception Gap

For instance, in a recent session focusing on mastering performance, we explored strategies to transition from being a good and steady performer to being viewed as highly productive. One key concept we examined is the tendency for women to hold themselves back by feeling the need to possess a skill before starting a job, thereby prolonging their tenure in more junior roles.

To determine whether the notion that women hold themselves back by feeling the need to possess a skill before starting a job is fact or fiction, we took a straightforward approach: we asked our attendees. The response was resoundingly clear – only 5% of women stated that they would learn the skill first before putting themselves forward for an opportunity. On the contrary, 33% indicated that they would learn the skill on the job. Many of them elaborated that their current roles frequently presented them with unexpected challenges, which they were already taking in their stride.

Furthermore, a substantial 62% of respondents acknowledged that the decision to learn a skill beforehand or on the job depended on various factors such as the nature of the skill and the specific situation at hand. This perspective underscores the nuanced reality of life and business – a recognition that not all scenarios fit neatly into predetermined categories. It reflects a sensible approach, acknowledging the complexity of decision-making in dynamic environments.

Finding the right balance involves knowing when to dive in and take action appropriately, while also exercising caution and recognising one’s limitations. It’s about being proactive and seizing opportunities when they arise, but also being realistic and not overestimating one’s capabilities. Striking this balance is essential for navigating the challenges of career advancement effectively and making informed decisions that lead to success.

Striking a Balance

Ironically, women have historically faced criticism for adopting this methodology. Following the financial services crisis of 2008, Christine Lagarde famously remarked, “If it was Lehman Sisters, it would be a different world.” The ultimate objective, however, is to transcend gender distinctions, strive towards a collective approach, and aspire to become “Lehman Siblings.”

If posed with a choice between two candidates—one prone to exaggerating their abilities and the other embracing a pragmatic approach—most managers would likely opt for the latter. Indeed, numerous individuals, irrespective of gender, adopt the latter approach. Yet, does this prudent approach ensure success in the current business environment?

In summary, while the notion of women hesitating to apply for jobs due to lack of confidence has gained attention, further research and observations reveal a more nuanced reality. Many women in the workforce are willing to learn on the job, challenging the idea that they hold themselves back by seeking perfection beforehand.

Moving Beyond Stereotypes

This underscores the importance of recognising the complexity of career decision-making and finding a balance between seizing opportunities and acknowledging one’s capabilities. Instead of perpetuating stereotypes, it’s essential to embrace individual differences and the various factors influencing career choices.

Ultimately, the aim is to transcend gender distinctions and cultivate an environment where skills and contributions are valued, leading to greater inclusivity, equity, and sustainability in the business world.

If this resonates with you, have a look at our upcoming sessions to see how we can help to unlock – and elevate – the potential in your workplaces.

Come and join the conversation over on LinkedIn to be kept up to date with the latest news!


1Hewlett Packard (HP) internal report has never been publicly released nor independently verified

2Why women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100 qualified by Tara Mohr, August 2014