The majority of women sell themselves short when it comes to promoting their professional qualities during interviews.
“It’s not that they are hesitant to do so, but are simply too modest.”
Petra Herman and Francine Rutgers from executive search bureau Herman Rutgers experience this almost daily in their interviews with female candidates for top positions within corporate and marketing communication. They claim that 80 percent of women undersell themselves when required to present themselves professionally.
Francine explains, “It often starts as early as the introductory interview with us. They need to market themselves as a professional and women clearly find this more difficult than men. If you ask a woman what she has accomplished in a particular position, she often presents the successes as a team effort and answers using the ‘we’ form; she does not say ‘I achieved this or that’, but ‘we achieved it’. You then need to address this and ask her, ‘But what did you do?’. We never need to ask men about this; they have a much easier time taking credit for their successes.”
Petra adds, “If you present a job profile to a woman who fulfils 90 percent of the requirements, she will start by talking about the 10 percent she has no experience with. Present the same profile to a man who only fulfils 40 percent of the requirements and he will start by talking about the 40 percent he clearly fulfils. In other words, men structurally oversell themselves.”
Why is it that men get away with overselling?
Petra laughs, “Because they’re simply good at it and have been doing it their entire lives!”
Francine explains, “Women are very self-critical. They are also very critical of other women and more readily give criticism than compliments.”
Petra adds, “Someone once compared it to a basket of female crabs. If you’re not careful, you’ll be pulled down again and again, whereas men give each other a leg up, as it were. I have no idea why women are like this.” Francine explains, “Men have always scratched each other’s backs through the old boys’ networks. Fortunately, there are also more and more women’s networks, which hopefully will have a positive influence.”
Why do women systematically sell themselves short?
Francine explains, “I think it’s a cultural issue. And a real shame. There are women who are highly qualified, but do not succeed due to a lack of self-confidence. For that matter, some positions require a bit more guts and not everyone is suited for that.”
Petra adds, “Self-confidence is something you can work on. It can be a long process and not everyone progresses as far as others. But what is easy to change is an overly modest attitude.”
Francine nods and adds, “Women often don’t fully realise how exceptionally they have performed. They tend to gloss it over, only mentioning it in passing instead of explicitly talking about the accomplishment. Recently, a woman interviewee casually mentioned that she had turned around a demotivated team into an enthusiastic and committed one. I had to bring this up again later on and point out to her that this was an accomplishment she could be proud of. She looked at me surprised, since she believed it was simply part of her tasks!”
Is that also the reason why woman earn less on average than men?
Petra adds, “That’s very well possible. This is also a consequence of women’s modesty. During salary negotiations, men often take a more business-like approach and argue that this is what I’m worth and what I want to be paid. Women almost never take this approach.”
Any brief recommendations for women?
Petra adds, “Take credit for your success. Have the courage to present yourself with pride. Focus on your qualities. Take a business-like approach.”
Francine adds, “Don’t take everything personally, even when it comes to criticism. Instead, consider criticism advice that is to your advantage because you can learn from it.”
Petra adds, “We have much to learn from American women, who are much more oriented towards success and celebrating their successes. It’s part of their culture. They also allow themselves to make mistakes because they learn from them. Incidentally, some American women take this to the extreme, but that’s another story. Dutch culture is more conservative, cautious. Like the Dutch saying goes, ‘Act normal because that’s already extraordinary enough.’ It would be a step in the right direction if our education system would devote more attention to helping women become emotionally stronger.”
This is the first of a series of interviews with Hermen Rutgers by Out in the Open