Is This Why You're Not Getting Ahead At Work?

Photographed by Ingalls Photo.
You don’t need to have spent time in a Lean In circle to know that a dramatic confidence gap divides women and men in the workplace. In the past month alone, two studies have been released that take a deeper look at the reason more women aren’t reaching the C-Suite. The findings are at once enlightening and disheartening, and they offer an explanation why — with more than 50% of college degrees and close to 40% of MBAs held by womenless than 5% of Fortune 500 companies have female CEOs. We might want those top jobs, but we’re unsure we can actually do the job.

Young women enter the workplace full of confidence, with 43% of female employees aspiring to top management roles, Julie Coffman and Bill Neuenfeldt found in their research for Bain & Company, a management consulting firm. Unfortunately, after just two years on the job, “women’s aspiration levels drop by more than 60%...with only 16% of women” still thinking they can reach executive roles. What’s worse, as women establish their careers, their confidence that they can achieve those goals drop by half.

I can relate. I was ready to conquer the world when I accepted my first professional job as an editorial assistant at a small book publisher. I worked my butt off, readily shared my opinions, took on every project that was offered to me and sought out others. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind, regardless of who was at the table. I was passionate about the work and sure of my skills. Until the year-end review where my manager told me I was over-confident. And that’s when I closed my mouth and was reluctant to open it again.

It got worse at my next job, where I worked among some highly talented creatives at a much bigger, much more famous media company. Meetings were intense, and I was terrified to say anything, let alone speak a differing opinion (even when I knew I was right). I was afraid to make a mistake, unsure I had anything to add to the conversation, and suffering some major imposter syndrome — and as a result I didn’t have much interesting work to do. I felt like I was backsliding in my career, moving away from the creative work I loved. I was essentially someone’s assistant, with a bloated title and paycheck, and a to-do list filled with busy work. No wonder I was laid off when the company decided to downsize.

Three years later, I’m in a much different place, thanks to a series of amazing bosses who recognized my skills and encouraged me to grow as a professional. Unfortunately, my experience is typical.

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Photographed by Mark Iantosca.
According to the Bain survey, one thing holding women back is the feeling they’re not supported by their managers. After two years on the job, only 44% of female employees say their supervisor is supportive of their career aspirations, compared to 64% of new workers.

Coffman and Neuenfeldt write that some women “are frustrated that their supervisors are ‘not encouraging or recognizing a desire to stay and passion for the work,’ as one survey respondent says. Others report[ed] receiving poorly delivered and often very negative feedback from supervisors: that they ‘lacked talent;’ that they’re ‘not cut out for’ a role in top management; or simply that they ‘didn’t really want it.’”

John Veihmeyer, the chairman of KPMG International, is trying to change this. Last Wednesday, the accounting firm hosted its inaugural Women’s Leadership Summit. The event welcomed some of the best and the brightest women in the corporate world, and speakers included a number of impressive female executives and CEOs. The day’s hashtag: #inspiregreatness.

During the conference, KPMG’s new U.S. CEO and chairman-elect (the first woman to hold this position at a Big Four accounting firm), Lynne Doughtie, took to the stage to share findings from the survey the firm conducted with more than 3,000 women, aged 18 to 64, about how the aspiration and ambition to lead is nurtured. The findings were woefully similar to the Bain study: Women want leadership roles, but something is holding them back.

“Six in 10 of the professional working women who responded indicated they aspire to be a senior leader of a company or organization, and more than half aspire to serve on a board. Yet they also reported hesitancy: More than half of the women agree that, ‘as women,’ they are more cautious in taking steps toward leadership roles, and six in 10 find it hard to see themselves as a leader,” the survey results revealed.

The authors of the KPMG study argue the “socialization of leadership” needs to start from a very young age. The survey asked women to consider the leadership lessons they learned growing up. Unsurprisingly, 86% were taught to be nice to others, but only 34% were encouraged to share their point of view.

“I wish I had learned that it’s okay to be nice to people and be a leader,” one of the KPMG survey respondents wrote. “Maybe it would have been great to learn how to be nice and how to be a leader at the same time.”

Veihmeyer has made diversity a focus of his career, and during the conference he spoke boldly about his high hopes that summit attendees would be inspired and motivated to pursue C-Suite level positions. But can a conference really affect that much change? Especially when you consider there were only 100 (mostly white) women in the room?

Over the next few months, Refinery29 will be exploring different ways to raise your confidence, as well as what success means to different people. Yes, we need more female CEOs — less than 5% is not an acceptable number. But at Refinery29, we also recognize that not all our readers want those C-Suite gigs. Regardless of what you dream of achieving, we want to help you reach those goals by building confidence. You don’t have to be a CEO. You just have to know you could be one if you put your mind to it.
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