Companies are sitting on a treasure trove of talent, innovation and ambition - women - But many women are still afraid to express what they have to offer.
When I started DrivenWoman, a global empowerment platform for women, back in 2013 many of my female friends with corporate careers were petrified about the name. 'Driven', it seemed, was not something women wanted to be associated with. I received a lot of requests to change the name, or they wouldn’t join the network.
I didn’t change the name - and my friends didn’t join - but other ambitious women around the world did. Now, seven years later and thousands of stories richer, I can tell you that the stigma about being ‘an ambitious woman’ still remains.
To be ambitious and driven implies that you believe you actually have something to offer, you believe in your own strengths.
Women don't want to talk about their talents so we conducted a survey amongst our community to find out to what extend. We asked them if they could quickly name their 5 personal strengths/talents (without much thought). 80% of respondents found it easy to name their key capabilities were but over 50% of respondents were not comfortable sharing them publicly or with others.
"I frequently find myself jokingly putting myself down or undermining my skills especially if someone has complimented me." said one respondent, and another described that talking about her strengths "makes me feel physically sick."
Women are incredibly ambitious but they are very scared to show their ambition.
Samantha, a senior leader in a marketing services company, was looking to make her next career move. Her experience sums up what we hear across our network of women from all different backgrounds. They are terrified to put themselves forward and fully express what they want and what they have to offer.
“I’m avoiding being brave. I have been in my current role for nearly eight years. I know I'm ready for my next step but I keep putting things in the way of my promotion. I come up with all sorts of excuses why I can’t go for a promotion whether it’s about renewing my mortgage, or turning 40.”
“I want to be promoted to a board level position. But I keep telling myself I’m not analytical enough because out of fear and worries that I'm not going to be good enough to succeed. That keeps me stuck. But I know I’m absolutely capable, I know I’m bloody good at my job. But the sensible me that is obsessed with security and wanting to be responsible and be safe all the time is scared.
Yeah. That’s what’s getting in the way. I’m scared.”
Natalie’s story is very similar.
“I was feeling comfortable and stable in my job. I had made great career progress so far to senior manager level but I didn’t have any clue how to be ambitious. I was scared to put myself forward because I didn’t know exactly what I wanted. I then saw the goals and aspirations of other women and only then I started to actively look for opportunities for growth.”
This is a pattern that repeats itself across all levels of seniority and business experience. Women are afraid to put themselves forward and show their talent and ambition.
Why are women so scared and what can companies do to address it?
Companies are sitting on a goldmine of female ambition that they don’t even know about, perhaps assuming that women are happy in their subordinate roles. Women are as ambitious as men but haven’t discovered the way to express their ambition yet.
1. It has not been safe to be a woman
You don’t have to look far back in history to discover what happened to women who showed ambition, who stuck their head out and wanted to have their voices heard. It should be no surprise that the same fear still lives within the system and within many women.
It’s well known that women should (apparently) learn to appear both confident in themselves and modest at the same time. Women leaders have to be 'likeable' to succeed. Yet, according to research the more assertive and ambitious women come across the less people like them. If you are too unassuming, nobody pays attention to your achievements and if you are seen as too ambitious you get hostile reactions, referred to as “backlash effect”—social and professional sanctions for failing to conform to gender norms. These are less harsh but deep down very similar to the sanctions women faced historically not so long ago.
A global accounting firm’s internal training program advised their female leaders “not to directly confront men in meetings, because men perceive this as threatening.”
What? Seriously? Should women still be afraid of men's retaliation?
I would sincerely hope not, so why do some corporations still build on these stereotypes and fuel women’s fears? It is no wonder if women are afraid to express their ambition in such environment.
2. Talking about confidence doesn’t help
There are two schools of thought here...
The first body of research suggests that women are as ambitious as men and women rate themselves no lower than men in leadership related dimensions. However, unless women can temper their assertiveness with more stereotypically feminine traits like kindness and warmth, confidence will do little to advance their careers.
Then there’s another camp that declares that women feel less confident than men, and because the corporate world rewards those who can show their ambition and accomplishments, women’s tendency to avoid promoting themselves (in fear of a 'backlash') means they’re passed over for promotions and pay raises. The solution, women are told, is simple: just appear confident, and that corner office will be yours.
The underlying factor for the seeming lack of ambition and confidence is fear. Women worry about being visible and and the punishment they may receive if they are not 'good enough' according to the male standards.
To unleash women's ambition we must talk about that fear.
The corporate model can often be based on promoting masculine values, such as competition, assertiveness and hierarchy. And so many women can feel alienated and afraid to fully express their feminine way of doing things and to believe anyone would care if they did. Qualities such as collaboration, kindness and humility have been traditionally tolerated as a part of a women’s way to be subservient to the masculine operating system, but not as values to be applauded in their own right.
Many women feel they are constantly judged and become very self-critical which leads to self-sabotage and being afraid of showing their ambition. Until we start talking about the fear that women experience (consciously or subconsciously) change will be difficult.
We have conversations with companies who are investing heavily into diversity and inclusion programs. It is clear that their heart is in the right place, they sincerely want to change the structures to support women. But despite many training programs these companies are still experiencing the same problem: women are fearful to put themselves forward and talk about their strengths.
Solution: enable women to discover and celebrate their inner strengths in a safe environment
Women need spaces where they feel safe to share and be vulnerable, where they can discover their inner strengths, build courage and learn to respect what they have to bring to the table. Women need women-only groups to support and share their experiences.
This is inner-work that only women can do. It may be difficult for a man who feels he’s being supportive to see what is going on. There’s of course other work that has to be done together.
However, it's important to remember that often fear doesn’t have a foundation in the present moment reality. It's unrealistic to think that generation-long patterns of shaming towards women will disappear overnight. We work with companies who have very equal cultures based on trust, and yet women often still feel scared to put themselves forward.
Women are as ambitious as men. There's a huge untapped potential of talents and qualities ready to be discovered when women are encourage to celebrate their authentic talents and come forward with their ideas. Women need to experience that there is no backlash and retaliation and see that they are equally valued part of the team when they show their ambition.
DrivenWoman is a female-only empowerment platform and accountability network, that helps ambitious women to achieve their goals and dreams by creating positive habits one step at a time. Thousands of women around the world have joined our program and are achieving their life goals, which range from entrepreneurial dreams to career change or simply being more confident in their own skin and enjoying life in the present moment.
Join us in DrivenWoman's FREE community the Doers Tribe.
To find out more about our programmes for corporations click here.