Now is a pivotal time for working women. The pandemic has shifted the tectonic plates, and lots of people – women especially – are re-evaluating their career or considering re-entering the workplace. Some of us have really lost our mojo over the last year and need a little bit of help feeling confident about what it is we can bring to the table. There’s no shame in that. For many, the last 18 months have made things more unequal, but in some ways, it’s left a behind a power vacuum for women to take advantage of. There’s a real opportunity in this new hybrid world of work to start afresh.
Success is often a direct result of perception. Despite there being so many well-educated and talented women out there, it’s still men who are paid more, earn more promotions and generally sit at the top. The more I think about this in the context of my own career, the more perception in the workplace feels really important. The difference between someone having a good and great career often comes down to whether they give off the impression of being a leader. That’s not just about how they dress – it’s about their voice, their body language and their presence in a room. But it’s not an area where women get a lot of advice – there’s more we can do to help each other.
Women should build a personal brand at work. I used to work with a female colleague who nearly missed out on a promotion because she wasn’t seen as assertive, even though she was highly capable. In one sense, our male colleagues knew how good she was – they were forever trying to poach her from my team – but they never considered her enough of a leader to be promoted. Ultimately, she didn’t have a strong personal brand, and she very often disappeared into the background. She also dressed in a non-descript way so as to make herself more invisible. Eventually, she was promoted, but when I told her, I revealed it hadn’t been a unanimous vote. After that, she dressed more consciously and was more vocal in meetings. Being more in tune with her personality and strengths, she was able to turn a vicious spiral into a virtuous circle.
Lots of women are fearful at work. It’s understandable because – unless you work in a creative industry – chances are you work in a corporate setting which is run by men and has a very strict behavioural code. Maybe it’s a bit more relaxed now the pandemic has shaken things up, but there isn’t often a clear way for women to carve out space for themselves in these settings. As a result, it’s more common to see women adopting the same habits or dress sense as men, but it doesn’t help us feel like our most confident selves – we’re trying to ‘fit in’ because we believe it will help us get ahead. In reality, this can make you feel quite low and won’t put you on the road to success.
In any workplace, there’s a balance to be struck – between blending in so much you never get noticed and going in too strong. Whenever you start a new job, there’s an existing culture to be aware of, and that’s reasonable – you should want to get the lie of the land at first. But working from home has made so many people – especially women – invisible in these businesses. No one should be pretending to be someone they’re not, but there are steps you can take to ensure senior people notice you.
Femininity is not a characteristic that has been valued at work. During my 35 years in the City, I’ve seen many women try to act, behave and dress like their male counterparts in an attempt to be taken seriously. Now it feels like a moment of change. It’s about bringing different qualities – be it empathy, better listening skills or more patience – to the table and letting your strengths shine through. Having a bit of colour and character in the office is no bad thing.
As the boss, it’s possible to lead by example. For example, I worked with a woman whose job it was to run corporate communications. Initially, I noticed she was dressed smartly, but in a way that wouldn’t get her noticed – plus, she didn’t overly assert herself in any situation. Within a few months she had started to embrace a different, more unique – but still appropriate – style at work. When I asked her about it, she said she’d noticed the way the female bosses dressed and behaved, and realised she could follow suit. So, you might not realise how the way you dress or behave at work influences another woman, but it can sometimes give them much more confidence.
If you feel more confident at work, the rest will follow. Feeling more confident can be something you start to solve with your outer appearance – but the benefits are endless. You’ll inevitably start looking at other parts of your work life and improve your ability to connect with others. Once you get past the mechanical things, you can work much harder on the value-added skills like public speaking or negotiation tactics – your impact at work will be much more noticeable.
Job interviews will always be daunting. You need to sound out the culture and people you’ll be meeting with ahead of time. There’s now lots of scope to find out some of the facts online – be it on LinkedIn or other kinds of social media – before you ever walk into the room or log onto the Zoom call. These days, the first interview isn’t often with a real person, so find out more about the software or programmes being used to assess you, too.
From there, you can only go into a situation as your best self. Don’t get caught up in the jeans-versus-suit debate – common sense should tell you what you need to know. Just make sure you’re wearing something that makes you feel like your best, smartest and most appropriate self. A second opinion can also work wonders. Talk to a former colleague, mentor, friend or partner to see what they advise.
Working mothers need to cut themselves some slack. You’ll never go from being a full-time mum to top dog in the boardroom overnight. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a success of the transition. Every time I did it, I never felt like I had it all sorted within the first week. Sign up to helpful organisations like Women Returners where you can network with other women in a similar position. The Diversity Project I chair also has a returners group which is run by women who have been through it – they can put you in touch with mentors and allies who have got your back.
Don’t worry if you don’t find the ideal role at first. These returner organisations can help you find individual projects or freelance opportunities to see if it’s the right route and find out what you need to put in place, like childcare. Don’t feel like a failure if you don’t get where you want to be right away. Women’s returners groups deal with people who have been out of the game for anywhere between one and 15 years – it can take a lot of courage to take the first step.
More women want to get back to work after the pandemic. Last year, through the Women Returners group, we had 30 placements and 800 applicants. This year, we thankfully have more firms involved, but the whole thing has snowballed and it’s a great time to be a woman looking to get back to work. It’s clear more companies are valuing women’s experiences.
The best piece of career advice I’ve been given is live the life you’ve chosen to live. I used to be one of those women who felt inadequate at work and inadequate at home – as though I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. That was until another mother said to me, “Look, you’ve chosen to work and be a mother, so you have to live as well as you can in that specific moment.” She was telling me to be present but plan ahead, so I could prioritise different elements of my work or home life. All of us have to come to term with the decisions we make, but it’s not worth wondering what you could have done differently.
I’d tell my 20-year-old self not to worry so much, not to hide your differences and be more confident in who you really are. I want women – of all ages – to know they have more agency than they think. Rather than feeling like a victim or encumbered by everything that might go wrong, feel empowered that now is your moment to step into the spotlight. There’s no instruction manual for how we should all be acting or behaving – or even dressing – at work, but it’s a great time to be a professional woman, so embrace it.
Helena’s new book, ‘Style and Substance: A guide for women who want to win at work’, is available now. Visit DiversityProject.com, WomenReturners.com and 30PerCentClub.org. Follow @HelenaMorrissey on Instagram.