Imagine yourself in this scenario for a moment.
You’re scrolling through a job website and you see a job you love. The hours are perfect. It’s a clear step up the ladder in your particular field. The team is one you admire and the pay is a lot more than you’re used to.
Your heart rate picks up a little bit as you lean forward, already re-working your CV in your head. You know this is the job for you. It’s the job you’ve been waiting for. It’s the reason you started this career.
You can almost taste this job, it’s so real to you as you begin to read the “Applicant Requirements” section. You have these skills! This list could be tailored to your existing experience. It’s like it was made for you…until — oh, wait.
There are two bullet-pointed requirements, lurking at the bottom of the list, that you do not have. Or, no. You don’t have them yet. You’re not unfamiliar with the processes, but they’re not a daily part of the role you’re already in, and you’ve no real experience of the tasks involved.
If you’re a woman, the chances are that at this point, you stop scrolling. You have come across clear evidence, right there on the screen, that you’re not in fact what this company wants. You tell yourself you’re not good enough. You close the browser and vow to look for something similar when you’ve acquired a few more of the key skills you lack.
A man would not do this.
A man would (research tells us) barely even pause before downloading the application form. Missing a few skills from the requirement list? No big deal. Picking those skills up on the job, a man would tell himself, would be easy.
We’re all familiar with the stats, aren’t we? Women apply for a job only when they meet all of the criteria; men will “give it a go” when they meet only 60% of the requirements.
And as a result, men can still dominate the workplace despite being no better suited to their roles (and perhaps worse suited!) than a woman would be.
Recently, I did a women-only “Beginning Fell Running” course high in the Welsh mountains. It was fantastic.
Fell running involves climbing up and running down mountains, often with no marked paths, and often for a lot of hours and miles. It’s a beautiful opportunity to commune with nature, but it’s definitely not as straightforward as road running. It’s not just a matter of grabbing the right shoes; you need some basic extra kit to stay safe, and you also need some learned skills.
The course I did was organised by a former international fell-running champion, Ruth Pickvance, who gave us a brief outline of her background as an athlete. She began fell running in the mid-1980s, at which time she was one of the only women on the field. Since retiring from competing, she has spent many years organising fell and trail races for her fellow athletes.
Because these are tough, intense races, they’re only for experienced fell runners and it’s a standard requirement for competitors to provide evidence that they have competed in at least one similar type of event.
“I lost count,” Ruth told us, “of the number of times a man would email me and tell me that he’d never done fell running before, but he’d done something else — maybe a double marathon five years ago — and he’d like to give my race a go because he believed he was up to it. It happened every time: a man would tell me that on paper he definitely wasn’t qualified to run my race, but he wanted me to take the organisational risk of letting him give it a try.”
Not once, said Ruth, had she ever had a similar email from a woman. Not once in all the years of organising those events.
Women would had doubts about their ability to complete the course even when they had already done several similar races that season.
Men would believe they could easily do it, despite having no evidence to that effect.
The only difference between the men and women emailing about those races? Confidence.
The particular irony for Ruth is that evidence emerges all the time to show that women are much better at endurance running. Science has proven this. It’s a sport that’s been predominantly populated by men up until now, but only because the men have been shouting the loudest.
It’s what men so often have and what women so often lack, and in a world where women are achieving more than ever before it’s sometimes (by absolutely no means always, but sometimes) the only thing holding us back in whatever field we have chosen.
Far more than men, we women are consumed with doubt about our own abilities. We thank luck, or being in the right place at the right time, or coincidence, for achievements that in fact, we brought about ourselves using our own strengths and under our own steam. We downplay in ourselves the natural traits that men are lauded for — traits such as empathy, an ability to listen, or sensitivity to nuance.
This needs to stop. It’s time to stop listening to the little voice telling us that we are not enough.
In their famous book The Confidence Code, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman deconstructed the myth that confidence is only down to genetics. There is a genetic element at play, but even people who lack “the confidence gene” can learn confidence. And that, I think, is what we all need to do.
It’s not as simple as deciding one day to display confidence. “Fake it til you make it” can be part of conveying confidence, but it’s not everything.
Kay and Shipman suggest, as a gentle start, simply trying to reframe perceived deficiencies in your own mind. So, rather than focusing on the one item on the to-do list that you believe you did badly, look at the list as a whole and feel proud of multi-tasking.
Another key point is remembering that taking action is essential to confidence. It’s the old “if you don’t try, you won’t know” theory. Yes, we may fail; yes, we may feel exposed. But failing is part of the path to succeeding.
I myself am very guilty (in all areas of my life) of holding back all the time, for fear of looking stupid or of being seen to fail. Of knowing, in fact, merely in my own self that I’ve failed. But after listening to Ruth and reading the words of Shipman and Kay, I’ve decided to try to remind myself more often that taking action is half the battle.
I want to dare to try.
In a world where as women we face so many barriers to success that we can’t easily change — legislation, biology, entrenched attitudes — don’t we owe it to ourselves and to our fellow women to work on the barriers that we can try to smash? I feel like I do.
Let’s sign up for some more of those tough races: because we can do them.