Helping women rise: Internal barriers to our own success

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Lindsay Pattison, WPP’s Chief Client Officer, when she was visiting India. A pioneering force for women’s advancement at WPP, Pattinson has created multiple diversity and inclusion programs including Walk the Talk, an award-winning equality movement that’s positively impacted the lives of over 1,600 women across the company. During her visit, Pattison met with mentors and mentees of WPP Stella, a women’s network aimed at helping women overcome barriers that prevent them from progressing to senior levels in their careers. In front of an audience of over 50 people, Pattison and I sat down for a fireside chat to discuss her efforts to champion diversity at WPP and encourage women leaders to thrive.

In particular, Pattison laid out two elements that are critical for women to succeed:

Data matters: Proving the case for progress

When it comes to helping women reach the top of their companies, talk isn’t enough. Using data as a catalyst for change and as a baseline for measurement is imperative. In particular, Pattison shared two statistics that are very encouraging: First, companies with high percentages of female board members outperformed their rivals by 53% in return on equity (Fortune). Second, companies with the most diverse executive boards are 21% more likely to achieve above-average profits (McKinsey). Clearly helping women get to the top—and stay there—makes a massive difference not just culturally, but financially. Many countries are in agreement: India’s Company’s Act now requires that an independent woman director be appointed to the board of all of India’s top 500 companies.

Barriers to success can be both internal and external: Taking action for our own futures

There’s a lot of focus on external barriers to women’s success such as unequal pay and gender bias in the workplace, among others. While these things certainly hinder the ability of many women to succeed, the key to unlocking tremendous opportunity for women is to simultaneously overcome the internal barriers that are holding us back. These include self-limiting beliefs, lack of confidence, staying in our comfort zones, and not tapping into others for help.

Pattison delved into each of these, exploring why they are so critical for women to achieve success.

Self-limiting beliefs

The problem is this: For generations, societal conditioning has laid out how men and women should act. From a very young age, many girls are repeatedly told that they are not strong enough or smart enough, and that they are not as important as boys. Their personas are cultivated to be respectful, polite, and helpful to others. As a result, when many women enter the workplace, they bring with them an inner voice that continually doubts their own competence and worth. This results in a lack of faith in what they can accomplish, even though they may have the brightest mind or highest potential in their peer group. Silencing the inner critic is critical for a woman’s career progression and vital for her to thrive in senior positions.

Lack of confidence

Imposter Syndrome—the feeling that you don’t deserve your job and are an imposter who can be found out at any moment—is a feeling familiar to many women. In fact, an academic study found that this syndrome affects close to 70 percent of people at some point, but most prominently women. Imposter syndrome means that while we may be accomplished, we still don’t rate ourselves as highly as our male counterparts. We don’t speak up and let our voice be heard. We are not aggressive in asking for more. We worry disproportionately about not being liked, outshining others, or promoting ourselves too much. A study from Cornell University found that men overestimate their abilities and performance, while women underestimate both. In reality, women’s actual performance does not differ in quality or quantity from men’s on average. And yet the gender confidence difference is real. For women who want to succeed in today’s world, believing that you can accomplish anything is a critical starting point. Innovative training programs that bring women together and help them build self-confidence can go a long way in shaping the women leaders of tomorrow.

Staying in the comfort zone

Perhaps one of the most limiting career moves women fall prey to is staying in our comfort zones. As we get older and more comfortable with our jobs, it is can seem easier to go with the flow rather than doing something to shake up the status quo. It’s scary to step out and try something challenging—something you never thought possible. Fear of the unknown, fear of failure, and fear of judgement often hold us back. But it is this very leap that women need to make into order to grow and progress. We must keep picking up new skills. We must be the first to raise our hands when opportunities come along, and the first to confidently take the plunge into the unknown when the time is right. Once we trust ourselves to do this, the confidence gained from stepping out of our comfort zone directly impacts our self-esteem and outlook on life.

Tapping into others

Another critical career aspect that Pattison has considered deeply in her career is mentorship. She was very strategic about who she chose as a mentor because she understood the power that others can have on your career. She believes that woman should look at their own industry—and even outside it—to make a list of the top people who can really help them achieve their ambitions. It’s then up to each of us to make these connections or find ways to be introduced to our top influencers in real life. In some cases, it may take a while to reach the top people you want to meet, but it never hurts to ask—and you’ll be surprised how often it’s a “yes” rather than a “no.” Outside of merely building our own networks, Pattison also encourages women to be mentors to others. Her philosophy: By opening up our networks and sharing contacts and resources generously, we deliberately treat others as we hope we’ll be treated in return.

Reaching the finish line

While there are still many external barriers that we may not have direct control over, internal barriers to success are elements that we can work to overcome. To succeed, women will have to spend time reflecting and focusing on themselves, pushing themselves to step outside their comfort zones and take on new challenges with confidence. Coupled with a supportive and encouraging work environment, we can take ourselves—and the women around us—further than we ever dreamed possible.