How to overcome influences that hold back your career

circles1We kick off the new year with yet more evidence and discussion of the factors which hold back women’s progress at work.

This time, it’s a report to the House of Commons in the UK about Women in Scientific Careers, which gives lots of examples and statistics to illustrate women’s lack of advancement in STEM careers — that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, in case you were wondering. Gosh, it’s hard to keep up when all you can think about is shoes, isn’t it?

The explanations for this are dismally familiar, and whatever your field of work and whatever your position, you will recognise some of the reasons given for this situation:

  • Self-doubt

  • Lack of confidence

  • What all my friends are doing

  • Perceptions of gender roles

  • People think you’re bossy

So much of our behaviour is influenced by perception, the way we see ourselves and the way we believe other people see us.

We don’t realise how subtly and persistently we are being persuaded by what we see and read and hear that we should think and behave in certain ways.

It’s hard to resist peer and media pressure, but here’s a way of taking some control over influences which, in the end, just make you undervalue yourself or push you into a certain category.

Start by narrowing down what you mean by ‘everyone’, ‘all my friends’, ‘the media’, ‘society’. You need a large sheet of paper, some markers and a bit of peace and quiet. You are going to make a map of the people in your life.

Put yourself in the middle — no, it’s not being pushy, it’s just an exercise, OK?

Draw a large circle around yourself, and in it write the names of the people whose opinion of you, personally and professionally, really matters to you.

These are the family, friends, colleagues who know you well and whose judgement you trust. They might or might not be people you see most regularly.

Around that, draw another circle of those who are a little more distant, a little less significant.

Then draw a third circle of those who you consider to be at the the periphery of your life. They don’t really know you and their view of you is superficial at best. These might or might not be the friends and colleagues you see most of.

All these people will see you in different contexts and perceive you in different ways.

Of all the names on your map, ask yourself:

  • Is this someone who shares my values?

  • Is this someone I admire?

  • Is this someone I trust?

  • Is this someone who is honest?

  • Is this someone who will advise me without following their own agenda?

The people who meet those criteria are those whose influence and advice are valuable. They are likely to come from your inner circle.

Focus on someone from this group when you find yourself thinking, for example, that ‘everyone’ will think you’re pushy, or, heaven help us, unfeminine, if you go for promotion.

The colleague at work, the old classmate who has taken a different life route, your significant other’s best friend, your fellow members of a sports team, the gang of mates you go out with on Fridays — how many of the boxes do they tick?

As for ‘media’ and ‘celebrities’ — really? It’s fun to get what we think are insights into the lives of successful people and big personalities, but they can’t be your guide.

You don’t know them and they don’t know you, and while it can be motivating to pick up tips and hints from people whose achievements we admire, they need to be tailored and applied to your own situation.

It was fun to use your hairbrush as a microphone (it still is, of course) and approach all life’s challenges with the question ‘What would Madonna do?’ but it’s time for smart girls to build their confidence and career prospects by making sure their self-image is formed by real-life people and ideas which support their aims.