When I graduated from university, jobless and directionless, a concerned family friend sat me down in his kitchen and said two things. First, work in compliance because those jobs will always exist.
I neglected this piece of advice, and later plunged headfirst into a dying industry. But the second bit of wisdom I have referred to many times over the years: “You can call anyone in America once. Anyone. So you better have something to say for yourself when they answer the phone.”
I think of this often as the conversation surrounding women at work increasingly shifts towards confidence — or lack of it. Research indicates that women are less likely than men to ask for what they want. Being ambitious is a good thing, but studies also show that the perception of a woman as confident can actually hurt her professionally.
With so much conflicting advice — lean in but pay your dues; be ambitious but not too much lest management thinks you are impatient; work harder than others but do not give your time away for free — it is easy to feel utterly confused.
Searching for answers, I turned to the experts for their top hacks — practical tips that women can use at the outset of their careers to navigate workplace hurdles a little bit better.
Ask men for advice
Solicit guidance from men as well as women, says Francesca Gino, professor at Harvard Business School and author of Rebel Talent — Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life. Research on why salaries for the same job differ according to gender found that advice solicited from higher-ups plays a role, she says.
Men tend to ask other men, who recommend asking for more money. Women ask other women, who tend to advise against asking for more money. “Women need to think about their networks and advice systems.”
Forget ‘I’m sorry’
“One of the simplest bits of advice I got was to take the word sorry out of my vocabulary,” says Leila Guerra, associate dean of Imperial College Business School, London. It is a speech pattern that women tend to adopt, she says, and removing it from your vocabulary helps make your ideas sound more convincing.
In fact, Ms Guerra suggests banning the entire dictionary of modifiers including: “I believe”, “I think”, “in my opinion”. She suggests focusing on being diplomatic. To suggest an idea, try “we should consider”, or “have we taken this perspective?”
Use your commute
This does not mean frantically checking work emails on your phone. Research by Prof Gino and colleagues found that people who used time on their commute to reflect and prepare for the day — asking clear questions, such as “what steps can I take this week to get closer to my goals?” — were happier and less stressed than those who did not.
Rehearsing a plan, even in your head, lowers your anxiety, says Prof Gino. This makes you feel more confident and improves performance over time.
Channel ‘younger sibling energy’
Visualise a baby trying to chase an older sibling before they have nailed the mechanics of walking. The secret to toddler psychology, says Kathleen O’Connor, associate professor at London Business School, is the idea that “if that guy can do it, I can do it, too”.
Her research has shown that visualising someone you know, possibly someone like you who has done what you need to do, is helpful for boosting confidence. Then, like a toddler, you try it too. Maybe you fall down, realise failure was not the end of the world, and try again. But, maybe, you nail it.
Dress to impress . . . yourself
Wear the clothes that make you most comfortable, says Alexandra Notay, fund director of PfP Capital, even if they do not fit the norm. A lover of bright colours, she says: “I spent years wearing blue and black trouser suits because everyone was wearing them. And then one year I wore a red dress to give a presentation.” Afterwards, the company received emails addressed to the “woman in the red dress”, she says.
“No one remembered my name, but they remembered what I was wearing and they liked what I said.” Bright colours, she says, make it easier for people to remember you.
Negotiate like a champ with ‘What if?’
High-stakes meetings, such as salary or contract negotiations, make people stressed. If you are panicked, you might forget a key point. So, before you walk into the room, reframe. Negotiation 101 says you should approach a meeting as a “What if?” conversation to broaden all the possibilities. Instead of approaching line managers with a problem, use language such as, “I’d like to talk with you about this situation, and there are a couple of details we need to iron out.”
This helps keep the conversation co-operative and non-confrontational, as does using inclusive “we” language.
Reverse role play
Role play with a friend, says Imperial College Business School’s Ms Guerra, by practising both roles in a negotiation.
By putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, she says, “you build mental routes for everything that could happen”, which helps you with planning and preparation.
Embrace your self-doubt
Our internal critic tends to speak most loudly when we are on the edge of big moments or some kind of risk, says coach and speaker Tara Mohr, author of the book Playing Big and creator of a leadership programme for women of the same name. It is a safety instinct, she says, designed to protect us from potential harm.
So, when you are experiencing acute self-doubt, ask what lies behind this protective instinct. Acknowledge it, but do not let it be in charge. Self-doubt is not the voice of truth, she says.
Reframe your fear
Starting out in a new workplace is hard, and the learning curve can feel daunting. But when you are feeling out of your depth, try to reframe your nervous energy, says Prof Gino. “Tell yourself: I’m excited about the opportunity to learn, rather than thinking ‘I’m nervous’ or stressing out.”
Try to look at hurdles as opportunities rather than constraints, Prof Gino advises. It is a simple shift in mindset that can help reduce our anxieties and the imposter syndrome that many of us feel.
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