Guest blog by Jenny Langridge, Business Development Manager for Companion Consultancy and acting editor of Veterinary Woman. Jenny specialises in sales, marketing and media within the veterinary and animal health sectors. firstname.lastname@example.org
I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t feel confident about certain work conversations. That familiar dropping feeling in my stomach, or the slightly breathless, pins and needles, rabbit in the headlights effect are particularly related to conversations where I need to ask for things – and the most difficult of all are conversations in which I need to ask something for myself, rather than for someone else or for my organisation.
On reflection, I reckon that the conversations I find most daunting are when I am actually acknowledging my own capability, and asking others to recognise it and expend their own energy in response – for example in asking my boss for an opportunity for CPD, or asking colleagues for greater support to enable me to use skills that will be of high value to my organisation.
So many times, these conversations have gone unspoken and I’ve backed away from voicing my request. Why should it feel so difficult for me to assert my value and worth? The requests aren’t unreasonable, and as someone trained in sales, I know I have skills for managing conversations and presenting a persuasive argument. I’m a mature woman with many years of experience, plenty of capability and many battles won and challenges overcome, so why should it still be so hard to ask for someone’s attention and consideration of me? Why do I still feel like I’m twelve years old?
At least in part, I think the answer comes down to conditioning. Although I witnessed female relatives trailblazing in their male-dominated industries, social acceptability still required me to be a ‘good girl’ – modest, unassuming, responsible for myself, yet serving others’ needs. Society taught me that it was not acceptable to be audacious, assertive or demanding – that I must be quietly stoic, work independently to achieve, but to ensure this didn’t overshadow others’ priorities. Jane Goodall’s words spring to mind: “It actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us.”
The world was not my oyster
As a generation greatly benefiting from hard-won women’s rights, the overt message was that the world was my oyster, and I was free to achieve anything I wanted to. Yet what wasn’t recognised is that the signals I was being given by society, as a girl and young woman, did not match this concept. I wasn’t allowed to join the Scouts to enjoy the activities and skills my brother gained. When I expressed frustration at the lack of opportunities available at school, I was accused of lacking resilience or ‘asking for too much’. When I interviewed for the next level job, I was dismissed as “a young woman who will want to start a family soon,” even though this was contravening employment laws that had been in place for two decades. When I asked about employment after a successful work placement, I was regretfully told the male-dominated customer base would not accept a young woman in the role. As a single parent, when I sought part time, flexible work, it was simply not available at the level I was qualified for – my skills, potential and value were not to be recognised unless I could throw off my domestic responsibilities.
I have been conditioned to believe that my value is not something I should voice and is not something I should expect others to recognise – and I don’t doubt that others have experienced similar. I can see that through my working life I have often held myself back because I didn’t believe I could do the job as well as someone else, nor that I deserved others’ efforts to help me develop. I’ve been subtly taught to go it alone and to doubt my abilities – and it turns out it’s a hard habit to break.
So, how to tackle it? Well, it’s a big ask to just overturn all that conditioning, but having some awareness of it and considering the question must be a good first step. I’ve found there are some specific things which have helped me with building confidence:
Build a supportive network
Surround yourself with a supportive network. Women can raise each other up and support each other to recognise their true value and potential. A study from the Kellogg School of Management found that successful women in leadership roles had ‘a distinctive inner circle of women in their network, connected to a separate set of third-party contacts’ as well as being centrally placed within wider networks.1
Women’s networks tend to be smaller, closer-knit and longer-term than men’s and are based on trust. That can offer powerful support, with a willingness to ask or share advice, and the solidarity of close, trusting relationships offering encouragement and inspiration.
Positivity is infectious. Spending time within a positive culture boosts us, and our own contribution towards cultivating such an atmosphere benefits ourselves and others, contributing to self-esteem and self-worth. It is a virtuous circle: feeling that we’re part of something good helps us feel good, which helps create something good. Consciously aiming to think positively about ourselves is more powerful than we might imagine in the face of self-doubt. It takes practice, but becomes a habitual way of thinking that contributes towards a growth mindset and aids us in overcoming obstacles and facing challenges.
It is worth some work at catching ourselves in any negative self-talk – where we undermine our own sense of value by blaming ourselves, magnifying the negatives of a situation or anticipating the worst – and working towards reframing it positively. This can bolster our sense of self-worth and actively help ourselves to an advantage.
Shawn Acor, psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage says in his Ted Talk: “If you can raise somebody’s level of positivity in the present, then their brain experiences what we now call a happiness advantage, which is your brain at positive performs significantly better than at negative, neutral or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, your energy levels rise. In fact, we’ve found that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31% more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed. You’re 37% better at sales. Doctors are 19 percent faster, more accurate at coming up with the correct diagnosis when positive instead of negative, neutral or stressed.” 2
Acknowledge your success
Reflect on your successes. We’ve often learned to be quick to judge ourselves and identify our shortcomings, but slower to recognise and celebrate our successes and capabilities. An exercise I find boosts me is to update my CV – focussing on describing my professional achievements in black and white as well as listing my skills and attributes with evidence to support them. I don’t need to be looking for a job to do this task – it can be done at any time – but a CV requires you not to hide your light under a bushel, or resort to modesty, but to sell yourself and highlight your strengths – so it often brings me pleasantly surprising reflections about the breadth or depth of my experience, and how I have successfully used my skills in my work life.
It’s also interesting to actively try to ‘borrow other people’s eyes’ and gain insights into different perspectives. Activities which expose you to considering others’ points of view – perhaps when welcoming a new starter in your organisation, working with a colleague to solve a novel problem, taking part in a CPD event, or considering how your customers experience their interactions with your business – present opportunities to view yourself and your role through a different lens. Sometimes, particularly if we’ve been very focused on learning, growing or improving, we can find we are taking our longer-established skills and expertise for granted. It can be surprising and confidence boosting when it dawns that you have knowledge or skills that others don’t, or a neat hack or unique perspective that others appreciate.
Count your blessings
Closely linked with thinking positively is practicing gratitude. Reflecting on our advantages and the things that are benefiting us can add another layer of wellbeing. So even whilst acknowledging that there have been times when I’ve been squashed, belittled or dismissed, it’s uplifting to reflect that there is plenty to be grateful for: those fabulous women who have been my role models – relatives, teachers, bosses, colleagues and clients who have inspired and supported, and who I’ve had the privilege to work alongside and learn from first hand. My good luck in stumbling into a career that I love, and the goodwill, solidarity and motivation for positive change that it’s been my pleasure to experience in the veterinary sector. There’s plenty of potential and so much hope – the future is bright, and I know I’ll have many more amazing people to meet and experiences which inspire!
So, I’m feeling pretty good now after writing that. How are you doing? With all this background work going on, hopefully we can gradually find ourselves better-resourced for those daunting conversations when we need to ask for something for ourselves.
Be brave. Take the leap. Remember that, in the words of Ilon Specht, a young female copywriter for Loreal working in a man’s world: ‘Because you’re worth it!’
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