Kristen Clark*, 31, used to work as a nanny for a wealthy family in New York City. After four years taking care of the family’s children, her boss was granted a promotion, and asked Kristen if she would be interested in transitioning out of her childcare role and into a property management position.
“I said yes without even thinking,” Clark says. “I realized I was in way over my head approximately one week later.”
Today’s job market can be competitive, and it’s understandable that job applicants gravitate towards the opportunities they feel qualified for. For women, however, this tendency has a concerning side effect of falling behind their male peers. You’ve probably already heard the quote: Men apply for jobs when they meet 60% of the qualifications, compared to women who will apply only when they meet 100%.
This phenomenon has also been lumped under the catchphrase “the confidence gap,” which outlines many of the ways in which women are less-self assured than men. When it comes to navigating the professional world, however, confidence is key. Whether you’re vying for a competitive internship straight out of college, looking to cinch a promotion, or even attempting to pivot industries mid-career, having the self-assuredness to put yourself out there for an opportunity that may not qualify fully for is, arguably, a solid strategy for getting ahead. This, after all, was part of the reason why Clark took the job in the first place.
Five years after starting her job as a nanny, Clark found herself overseeing five homes as a property manager. She allowed herself to operate independently and make mistakes as she went, making sure to correct them and learn from them.
“Essentially I was allowed to fail at a project and then fix it before my boss even knew I had failed once,” Clark explains. Looking back, Clark realizes that this move ended up making her feel powerful and capable. “I really relished in the power of my boss handing me the wheel and of the trust she gave me in making decisions spontaneously on her behalf.”
Emily Brown*, 25, found herself in a similar situation as Clark after seeing a posting for a styling manager for fashion week. “I showed them some footage of me as a backstage stylist for different show that I had previously worked on,” Brown says, adding that the footage had been from the only other fashion show she had ever worked on (and that she’d embellished her experience to get that gig, too).
I learned that, unless you fake it until you make it and, in a way, trick people into thinking you know the answers, you'll never get ahead.
Both of these women say that stepping into these supposedly out-of-reach roles “felt amazing.” Before taking the property management position, Clark had worked in a male-dominated industry and says she rarely got to work with other women. Because of this, Clark never felt she had the ability to be aggressive. “It wasn’t until I worked with a woman boss that I learned that, unless you fake it until you make it and, in a way, trick people into thinking you know the answers, you'll never get ahead,” Clark explains.
“This is what men do,” says Cynthia Pong, a feminist career coach at Embrace Change who helps professional women step into their power. “If we ever want the upper echelon of anything to not keep looking the way it looks, we have to go for things and make people pay attention to us.”
Pong explains that many of her clients have hesitated to go after roles that feel out of their reach. “A lot of people say, ‘if only i had more training, more experience, then I’d go for this thing,’ but you learn by doing.” She adds that when considering a list of qualifications for a job posting, not to get too hung up on having every single one of them because even the employers themselves aren't expecting that. “Job descriptions are created in this world where you’re describing your ideal, superhuman candidate, so you have to remember that they’re not always reasonable asks. They’re sometimes a fantasy.”
She adds that most people have numerous similar or transferable skills that can be analogized to the ones on the job posting. And, if not, Pong says to remember that every applicant has learned new skills before and can do so again in a different context. Pong recommends highlighting past successes and experiences in similar situations, adding that the experience does not necessarily have to be from a paid job. “[Show how] your experience doing similar things makes you well equipped to handle these types of tasks or environment — say it unapologetically.”
Once you’ve landed the job, Pong says it’s important to ask what it will take to be successful in the role and how your success will be measured. Pong says that believing in yourself and your capability is very important, but you also have to make sure that you follow through, particularly if you're making up for a lack of experience or reputation in that field. "Saying affirmations is helpful, but you do have to put in the work," Pong says, adding that it's worth an ask to see if your boss will support you in attending trainings and scheduling regular check-ins. She also suggests finding an ally or mentor in your new workplace ecosystem, and not being shy to ask for help if and when you need it.
Job descriptions are created in this world where you’re describing your ideal, superhuman candidate, so you have to remember that they’re not always reasonable asks.
“Most women are capable of so much more than they’ve ever done,” says Brown, adding that she now regularly goes after positions she's not fully qualified for, each opportunity leading her to a better one the next time. Similarly, Clark has continued to apply for positions she is "under-qualified" for. “I now work with a company who believes in hiring under-qualified applicants who believe in and align with our brand, and putting in the time to train them,” Clark says. “In a small twist of fate, I am now shifting into an HR role and will pay it forward accordingly.”
Ultimately, applying for jobs is never easy: It takes preparation, experience, and desire, but we must not forget that it also requires initiative and, often, a bit of risk. Still, if Clark and Brown's experiences are any indication, applying for things that feel slightly out of your reach can quickly transform into a lucrative and career-transforming habit. Sometimes, all it takes is a shift in perspective — and, certainly, attitude.
“[Now] whenever I’m trying to get a gig I always try to have the confidence of a white man who also isn’t qualified for the position,” Brown concludes. “Somehow that always works.”
*Name has been changed