Communication and Confidence: Empowering women to fulfil their potential in the workplace

Is an outdated perception of women limiting their success?


This article is based on an interview conducted by Millie McMillan (Wimbledon High School) with Anita Hamilton. Anita is a communications and leadership strategist who runs seminars and training sessions, which enable women from graduate to board level to become more effective communicators and better leaders, therefore increasing their chances of succeeding in the workplace. 

How is it that in 2016 there are still more senior directors called ‘John’ than there are females? This shocking statistic exposes the reality of being a female in the workplace. Anita notes that the problem is definitely not that women aren’t as competent as their male counterparts; in fact, the opposite is true – on average women leave university better educated than men. However, a recent study shows that whilst male confidence increases throughout the two years after graduation, in general female confidence drops dramatically. Anita states that, “The lack of women at board levels has nothing to do with women’s ability, but more to do with the perception of women’s ability.”

Part of the problem is corporate organisations that have been dominated by men for far too long, particularly at senior levels. Anita explains that, “the change has to come from the senior management team,” showing that a shift in mindset has to occur in order for the message about female empowerment to filter down through the ranks of the company, enabling more women to be either employed at a senior level or promoted to a managerial role, which will help to break the glass ceiling. The outdated pejorative stereotypes that women are either not ambitious enough or incompetent seem preposterous to young educated women, yet a change of mindset in large corporations in required in order for females to fulfil their true potential in the work place.

Yet it is not only the attitude of companies that has to change, but also of us as females. Anita made the fascinating point that often, effective language and communication is key to asserting yourself as a confident employee (or even student). “Women are much more likely to undermine their decisions by using self-limiting language”. ‘Self-limiting language’ is a term that can be used to describe phrases such as “I was just wondering”, or “Sorry this might be wrong but…” – these doubtful phrases convey a sense that you don’t believe in your idea – and if you don’t, nobody else will. This seemed incredibly relevant to us as female teenagers – often we precede our questions at school with – “This is probably wrong”, despite the fact that it is a logical and intelligent answer. It is vital that schools teach students to believe in ourselves and our ideas and instil confidence. Furthermore, Anita argues that it is important for women to build up grit (WHS girls!!) and resilience, skills that are essential in order to be successful in the workplace.

Moreover, the negative perception of women who are leaders highlights the disparity and sexism prevalent in the workplace. Whilst men are seen as ‘assertive’, women are seen as ‘bossy’. In addition, men often find ‘self-promotion’ easier, whereas Anita explains that for many women, who are taught to be ‘demure and modest’, it is challenging to emphasise all their strengths in order to be promoted to senior roles.

It was very interesting to discover how Anita’s role involved empowering women in the workplace. Leadership courses build resilience and increase behavioural awareness so that women learn to communicate in an assertive way that does not undermine their ability, enabling them to gain confidence. Moreover, the training courses teach women to overcome the stereotypes that hold them back. Anita noted that the role of a good HR department is vital for empowering female employees, as inspiration and encouragement can help women to overcome the barriers preventing them from rising through the ranks at leading corporations.

In answer to the question of whether she is optimistic for gender equality in the workplace in the future, Anita stated, “there has been progress, although it is slow”. Lord Davies’ report on women on the boards of FTSE 100 Companies shows that the target of 25% women has now been exceeded and another recent report sets a target of 33% women on executive management teams by 2020. Whilst this is good progress, there is still a long way to go in terms of achieving gender equality and equal representation of women and men at a senior level of corporations. However, Anita is hopeful that by teaching women that they are as competent and able as male colleagues, thereby increasing confidence; as well as through the significant effort of senior managers at male-dominated companies, that eventually a higher proportion of women will be able to reach their full potential in the workplace.

I would like to thank Anita Hamilton for her invaluable contribution to this article.

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