Women in professional services: Confident, challenging—and different

Source celebrated International Women’s Day with the publication of a book that brings together all the interviews we’ve carried out with women in the sector over the last year. Responding to research that found one of the most important factors likely to encourage women to stay in the industry were relatable role models, we set out to tell the stories of 25 amazing women.

Re-reading all those interviews, three things struck me.

The first was confidence. All these people believed in themselves and their ability to do anything: For some that sense was forged in their childhood, but for others it came over time, as they proved themselves in difficult, stressful environments. Self-belief is a misnomer, though, as most of the women we spoke to deliberately ensured they had the support of those around them—“No co-worker has ever said to me, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that’,” said one—and they recognised the importance of creating a similarly supportive environment for others. “You can’t simply give someone self-belief,” commented another, “but you can help them to recognise how they think and behave, and how it might sow the seeds of self-doubt.” Confidence came, too, from working hard, from being exceptionally good at what they do, and from doing something they love. It also meant these women were prepared to ask, not wait to be asked.

So far, what we heard echoes Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortation to women, to “lean in”. But our interviewees did more than that: They recognised that confidence wasn’t enough, but that they had to challenge the system. “There’s a lot of unconscious bias that women are exposed to, which we need to get rid of,” was how one woman put it. “When something like that comes up it’s absolutely right to raise it and protest.” It occurred to me that, if we look back at the way women’s roles have changed, at least in Western developed economies, over the last 100 years, there’s been an interplay between these two factors—confidence and the willingness to challenge. The suffragettes were prepared to challenge the system, often at terrible personal cost, but they weren’t surrounded by a generation of women who were confident in their ability to compete with men on an equal basis. Indeed, as many women were outraged at the suffragettes’ behaviour as men. Because of this, once the immediate gains had been secured and outside of periods such as the Second World War when more women had to work, most women’s lives didn’t change much. Ironically, as women’s confidence grew en masse, the importance of challenging the system declined. Perhaps they, like Sandberg, thought that leaning in was enough.

The last couple of years have clearly changed that, with the #MeToo and #TimesUp campaigns reigniting a willingness to challenge at a time when women’s confidence in themselves and what they can achieve has never been higher. For the first time, it feels, confidence and a willingness to challenge are in sync.

But our interviews highlighted a third factor, and I like to think this will be what make the next 100 years very different when women are concerned—difference. Many of the early pioneers of women in business felt they had to behave as the men around them behaved, but that’s not how this new generation of women leaders see things. “Earlier on, I wasted time thinking I needed to,” recalled one of the women we spoke to. “I read the usual books about leadership—all written by men. The tips and tricks were modelled on the male approach to leadership, which, in the main, didn’t resonate with me. Eventually, I stopped trying to emulate the men and decided instead to embrace and own my femininity: I love high heels. Like it or lump it. In any event, it doesn’t affect the quality of my advice or the support I provide to my clients.” Of course, it’s not the high heels that matter here, it’s the willingness to recognise that all people—not just women—are different and that we work better if we leverage that difference rather than trying to downplay it. Many of the women we spoke to had been in situations where their presence and the way they reacted changed the dynamic. That’s why, when I read through the advice these women would offer their younger selves if they were starting out today, or would give to the next generation of women in professional services, one comment stood out: “I’d tell her it’s going to be great.”