International Women’s Day 2021: Why we should always choose to challenge

Lizzie Buxton

Written By Yvonne Wilcock, Managing Director, AdviserPlus

8th March 2021

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When I heard that the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was #ChoosetoChallenge, it really resonated with me, and encouraged me to reflect on my own career and the path that has led to me to where I am now – having the privilege to lead a successful HR service business as its Managing Director.

As the proud leader of a business that employs 320 people, where females occupy 78% of all roles in the business, with female representation in every function, and where 60% of the Executive and 60% of Board positions are held by women, you may think that we’ve achieved a lot in terms of equality –  and you’d be right, to a point, as there’s always more we can do to embed and sustain inclusion.

HR: is it really a ‘white female’ profession?

In an article in Personnel Today in 2017, Ashleigh Webber posed the question of whether HR is really a ‘white female’ profession.  Certainly, the gender stats from the CIPD annual survey at that time seemed to back that up – 77% female and 21% male with the remaining 2% selecting another gender identity or preferring not to answer, compared with 60% male and 40% female across the general working population.  You can see that AdviserPlus very much aligns to this, particularly in our advisory roles which make up 70% of our workforce.  As a business this year, we are choosing to challenge ourselves to understand how we can become more inclusive for all, at every level in our organisation.

Despite being a female-dominated profession, the article highlighted that men still seemed to take up the majority of senior HR positions, often having entered the profession through an alternative route such as previous operational supervisors who have transitioned into a HR management/leadership role or those who may have reached director level through a finance route, gaining solid commercial experience and then increased the scope of their role to become responsible for an organisation’s HR function.

And until the last 18 months, that was also true in our business.  The shift in the proportion of females holding the Executive and Board positions has come, not as a result of a conscious positive bias of the organisation toward greater gender equality, but certainly in my own case, as a result of me personally choosing to challenge.  And what I chose to challenge was myself and specifically my own limiting beliefs.

I made a conscious choice in my 20s that I wanted to pursue a career in HR as I felt it would tick all of my personal boxes in terms of the skills I wanted to develop and the experiences I wanted to achieve; commerciality, influence, strategy, leadership, driving performance – in essence, to be at the very heart of a business.  The roles that I have had over the years have given me just that and enabled me to reach Director level in my chosen profession which ultimately led me to take the decision to join AdviserPlus in 2015 as Business Development Director.

Self-limiting beliefs often holds us back

In a 2019 Harvard Business Review article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman shared the results of their research and analysis of thousands of 360-degree reviews which showed that women outscored men on 17 of the 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders from average or poor ones.  And yet they also found that when asked to rate themselves, women tended to be less generous in their ratings than men and were much less confident until the age of 40 onwards where confidence levels converged across the genders.  They also pointed out that this is also seen in the typical responses “where a man and woman with identical credentials, who both lack experience for a higher-level position, come to different conclusions about being prepared for the promotion. The man is more inclined to assume that he can learn what he’s missing, while in the new job. He says to himself: “I am close enough.” The woman is inclined to be more wary, and less willing to step up in that circumstance.”

I can definitely identify with that last finding as when the previous CEO decided to leave our business, despite knowing that I was doing a good job as part of the Executive team I didn’t initially have the confidence to put myself forward as a potential replacement.  Although I am an HR Professional and had gained experience of leading the Business Development, Client Management and Service Delivery functions in my time with AdviserPlus, I felt I lacked experience in leading a whole business.  It was only when I was involved in the actual recruitment process and was part of the panel who interviewed the applicants who were all male, that I finally saw first-hand that I actually had more skills and experience than those candidates, and so I plucked up the courage to ask to be considered in the process.

In my experience, what held me back was not that I was a woman, it was my own self-limiting beliefs.  When I finally put myself forward, I found that the men who were tasked with making the hiring decision actually didn’t let gender influence their decision at all – they simply hired the person with the best match to the background, skills and experience they were looking for – and that just happened to be me.

So, this International Women’s Day, if I were to talk to my younger self, I would tell her to #ChoosetoChallenge herself and her own limiting beliefs and to have the courage to put herself forward – you’ll never know where it could lead to until you try.

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