Women and confidence

Women and confidence

In my mid-years I was asked by a lady whose husband had died how I would describe the ideal man to take on the work she felt she couldn’t do on her newly purchased farm. She was fit and healthy, forty years old and had practical experience as well as a degree in agriculture. There was, and is, heavy work on farms even with the most modern equipment but this lady was asking me about someone who could drive tractors and use hydraulic heavy lifting attachments.

I knew she was an excellent car driver and asked her why she needed a man to do this work. Her reply was interesting. “Well it’s sort of a man’s work, isn’t it?” she asked rhetorically. Pressed to explain, she told me that she simply didn’t have the confidence to do something she had never seen a woman doing. Her confidence was not generally limited to the things she had already done but it didn’t extend to handling heavy equipment. You wouldn’t find that lack of confidence today. The biggest machinery is regularly driven by women now.

“New Research Finds That Supporting Female Entrepreneurs Could Boost Global Economy By $5 Trillion’’ was the headline in a recent article on the subject based on the BCG work. It went on to say that female entrepreneurs were far behind men in the funding they could attract, in their confidence to handle finance and some other aspects of building a business and in their willingness to take risks. In fact, despite great women running big parts of the world, it said, many women still lack confidence to take on jobs and positions they think of as ‘man work’.

I have often puzzled about this because there have been several occasions when I have supported women to take top jobs and found them not only willing but eager. The two female managers I got to walk into the men-only management dining room at a very big company I worked for were, after minimal demureness, eager to do so. I appointed a very capable employee, Anna, to become the company’s Managing Director, against company orders (“We don’t believe in women managing directors”). She didn’t hesitate to take on the job.

In both these cases, the first in 1971, the second in 1986 (can you believe) the ladies themselves had no lack of confidence about whether they could do what was required of them. On reflection I think they were in an environment, working for me, that gave them a lot of confidence. They also knew that I was willing to resign if their promotions were not accepted. What gave that confidence? I am sure it was knowing that their success or failure would be judged on the same basis as everyone else. They knew there would be no advantage nor any disadvantage for being a woman.

The article went on to suggest that more mentorship and networking opportunities was an essential part of getting women into top jobs. Of course, I agree that good mentoring, coaching and training will help anyone aspiring to run a top job – regardless of sex. I do not think women need this more than men – I think everyone needs it. Where I think women need special treatment is in their early involvement in the strategy of the business. Men think they are better strategists than women. There is absolutely no reason to agree with this. Indeed, men seem to have got the world into a right old mess with their armaments and assertive diplomatic strategies – and I am not just talking about President Trump.

Strategy requires a calm view of what is urgent and what can be planned. It further requires excellent assessment of resources, realistic calculation of potential, practical dedication of training required and a clear but flexible Plan B at all times. Considering the number of women who are deserted without support, with children to look after and educate and raise, money to earn and a prejudice by employers to cope with, I think they score pretty well on all these criteria.

You do not bring up successful children by doing everything for them. You do it by treating them as sensible people, teaching them to understand what standards and responsibility are, and shoving them firmly into the world at the fastest pace they can cope with – which is always faster than their parents think. Given the confidence that they will always have a supportive home, they will make great successes of their lives.

The same applies to grown-up men and women – equally. But men fail to support, encourage and shove for fear of opposition and competition.

So it’s men who lack the confidence, not women.