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Building and maintaining career confidence

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Both within and outside the world of work, the words “bossy” and “aggressive” are frequently used to describe women who stand up for themselves or behave assertively.
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And yet this word is almost never used to describe men who exhibit the same characteristics. In a fast-paced, competitive industry like financial services, it can be challenging for women, especially those who are just starting out in their careers, to find the right perceived balance between confidence and humility – a challenge their male peers may not be as familiar with.

In my view, maintaining career confidence is absolutely critical to achieving greater diversity in financial services, and indeed in any other industry. A recent study from Bain & Company found that despite starting their careers just as confident as men, women’s confidence falls by some 50% after just two years. Men’s stay the same. These declines are independent of marriage and motherhood, so the onus is on companies and individuals to help tackle this confidence gap.

Role models are critical to maintaining confidence and, as we know, the financial services industry does not have as many female role models as we would like. This is adding to the perception that trading takes place in a macho, male-dominated environment ill-suited to women. In my experience, this perception has not rung true and I have found that having a diverse balance of styles across the trading floor to be far more effective. Trading is not a solo activity – it requires a broad range of skills and personalities from numerous teams of people including analysts, traders, risk management specialists, operations and credit teams.

In fact, a recent study by Alexander Mann Solutions and Trading Hub on women in trading found that while women made fewer trades than their male counterparts, their trades were generally of a higher quality, and they also found that women took a different approach to risk.

So, what needs to happen to ensure female confidence is maintained and, subsequently, greater gender balance on the trading floor is achieved?

My first observation is that as women, we need to share responsibility for building confidence and driving our own careers forward. My advice would be:

One: Seek clarity on your objectives if they are unclear and ask your managers what success looks like. Look for opportunities to challenge yourself and request feedback from a broad set of peers, staff and leaders to get a perspective on strengths and what needs to be worked on.

Two: Don’t shy away from office politics. Seek to understand different business divisions, observe the dynamics and get a feel for what motivates people.

Three: Get networking – it’s integral to building confidence and gaining a true understanding of your industry. Don’t be put off by old stereotypes of networking – late nights and vast bills – the reality of modern networking is completely flexible; it’s about grabbing a quick coffee with a colleague or taking a peer to lunch.

It is crucial that corporations and women work together to close the confidence gap that is leading to so many talented individuals stalling or opting out of their careers. The financial services community has come a long way in the past few years to attract and retain female talent. The crucial next step is to up the pace of change. Targeting the blockage at midcareer is the best place to start.

Personally, I believe female role models that embody the attributes and behaviours of a modern leader such as connectivity, collaboration, empathy, and dealing with ambiguity – are key to increasing aspiration levels and confidence in other women.

About the author:

Carol Howle, Head of Group Chief Executive’s Office, BP

Carol Supports the CEO in managing the Group’s business across Upstream, Downstream, supply & trading, Alternative Energy and all other corporate functions and businesses.

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