Women, claim your success!

Astrid Prummel 04 September 2018

The majority of women sell themselves short when it comes to positioning their own professional qualities in job interviews. ‘It’s not that they don’t dare, they’re just too modest.

Petra Herman and Francine Rutgers of executive search firm Herman Rutgers experience it almost daily in their interviews with female candidates for top positions within corporate and marketing communications. They believe that 80 percent of women engage in underselling when they need to present themselves as professionals.

Francine: “In the introductory interview with us, it often begins. They have to put themselves down as professionals, and women clearly find that more difficult than men. If you ask a woman what she has accomplished in a particular job, she often presents the successes as a team effort and answers in the “we” form; it’s not “I accomplished that,” it’s “we.” Then we really have to correct her and ask “what did youdo?”. With men, we never have to ask that. They claim their successes much more easily’.

Petra: “If you present a job profile to a woman who meets 90 percent of it, she will start talking about the 10 percent she has no experience in. If you present the same profile to a man who only meets 40 percent of it, he will start talking about the 40 percent he does master. In other words, men are structurally overselling.’

Why do men get away with that, with that overselling?
Petra laughs, “Because they’re just really good at that, they’ve been doing it all their lives!
Francine: “Women are very critical of themselves. They also look at other women very critically. They criticize each other faster than they compliment each other. Petra ‘Someone once made this comparison: women are like crabs in a basket: if you’re not careful they keep pulling each other down, while men give each other an ass. Why we do it, I don’t know either.’ Francine: ‘Men traditionally play ball to each other via old boys networks. Fortunately, there are now more and more women’s networks, which hopefully will have a good impact.

Why do women routinely sell themselves short?
Francine: “It’s culturally determined I think. Such a shame. There are women who are very qualified but don’t break through due to lack of self-confidence. For some positions you also have to have a bit of guts and not everyone is suitable for that.’ Petra: “You can build self-confidence. That can be a long process and not everyone succeeds. What you can easily change is an attitude that is too modest.’ Francine nods: ‘Women often do not realize how special an achievement they have made is. They then easily talk over that, mentioning it en passant rather than addressing it explicitly. The other day, a woman casually shared how she had made a demotivated team enthusiastic and engaged. I had to recall that later and point out to her that that was an accomplishment she could be proud of. She looked at me in surprise, she thought it was perfectly normal, it was in her job description, right?

Is that also why women earn less on average than men?
Petra: “That could well be the case. Here too, the modesty of women avenges itself. In salary negotiations men adopt a more businesslike attitude, they think: this is what I am worth, this is what I want to be paid. Women are rarely like that.’

What succinct advice can you give women?
Petra: “Claim your success. Present yourself with guts. Focus on your qualities. Be businesslike.’ Francine adds, ‘Don’t take everything personally, not even criticism. You can also see criticism as advice that you can benefit from, that you can learn from.’
Petra: “We can learn something from American women: they are much more focused on success and celebrating their successes. It is in their culture. They are allowed to make mistakes, because they learn from them. Some American women go overboard with that too, but that’s different. The Dutch culture is more conservative, cautious: just act normal and you’ll be crazy enough. It would be good if our educational system paid more attention to making women emotionally stronger.


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