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Confidence And Balance The Biggest Struggles For Women At Work

Practical tips for career progression from two women who've done it.

07/09/2016 11:42 AM AEST | Updated September 7, 2016 14:44

It's 2016 and women are still fighting for gender equality in the workplace.

What an annoying sentence.

It's a topic two women felt so strongly about they decided to write a book -- and in terms of understanding the workforce and all that comes with it when you're female, they are well versed to make comment.

Phanella Mayall Fine began her career as a corporate lawyer, working on multi-billion dollar transactions in London and New York. She then moved on to become the only female fund manager on JPMorgan's European Equity Fund desk managing in excess of 20 billion euro. Now a mother of three, while pregnant and on maternity leave she passed all three levels of the CFA,which is regarded as the hardest investment exams worldwide.

Alice Olins has written for a huge range of women's magazines. She spent a decade at The Times in the UK as senior fashion writer before a stint as Marie Claire's fashion features director. Today she has two daughters and is Red Magazine's fashion Features director at large.

Liya Zlotnik
Phanella Mayall Fine and Alice Olins, authors of the book 'Step Up'.

"I have always been obsessed with gender equality," Mayall Fine told The Huffington Post Australia.

"As a little girl living in the States -- I moved to London age eight -- I wanted to be the first female President of the United States. I couldn't understand why it was even an issue. As I grew up and went to Oxford and then worked as a fund manager and I saw my female colleagues falling by the wayside thanks to unconscious bias and lack of flexibility when they had children. I knew I had to do something about it. So I re-qualified as a coach with the intention of focusing on women. I already knew that I and my peers were having different workplace experiences to the men around us, but when I became a coach I realised that there are career secrets and support available, it's just that most of us don't have access."

From there the idea for a hands-on, career focused self-help book aimed at women was born.

"The book emerged very naturally from the urge to share these secrets and support with other women. A chance meeting over a glass of wine with my old friend and co-author Alice, who had been having the same thoughts, confirmed that this was something that needed to be done but in a cool, accessible way. Careers have never been on a par with what we wear, feel or eat -- but why not? They are intrinsic to our lives."

Entitled Step Up, the book contains practical activities (called 'Workouts') which are essentially homework tasks by which women can measure their current status, attitudes and progress.

"We talk a lot about confidence in the book," Olins told The Huff Post Australia.

"Confidence is part of that emotional armour that we encourage our readers to explore and use to build their self-belief and in turn, their careers. Part of building a solid career is taking risk as well as accepting and managing failure and learning to move on. Failure is a dirty word to most, but not to us. Women are generally risk averse, and this affects our ability to shine. If we don't stand there and make our point, write and present that killer project for the boss, or be ready to jump into the deep end if the situation requires it, we do ourselves a disservice. Our emotions are what make women wonderful, empathetic and unique, but they can also bring us down."

"We also re-frame the discussion around leadership. We are all leaders, whatever our position at work, when we accept that we possess within ourselves the capabilities, strength of character and management skills to lead even just one other person (one other intern, if that's the case) then we immediately empower ourselves to greater heights," Olins said.

Getty Images/iStockphoto
Women need to see themselves as leaders at work, no matter how junior or senior their role.

Mayall Fine reiterates the point Olins makes around confidence. Since retraining she is now an executive coach and development consultant -- with a Masters in Organisational Behaviour -- and continually comes up against confidence issues with her female clients.

"Confidence is the number one topic I encounter in my coaching practice. There is almost no one I see, no matter how senior, no matter how outwardly sorted who doesn't have some kind of inner confidence issue. Closely linked to that is drive towards perfectionism and ensuing fear of failure, which I see far more in my female clients," Mayall Fine said.

"When we can't fail, it paralyses us when it comes to taking risks and then success is that much more difficult. To address this we borrow from the startup world the idea of 'failing fast' but applying that to your career; learning to use failure as a learning opportunity, taking stock of what went well and didn't, acknowledging and moving forward in a mindful way turns failure into a positive."

A tangible way to deal with failure is to hold a 'funeral' for the idea or project.

"One of our interviewees is Elizabeth Varley, Founder & CEO of Tech Hub, and she talked to us about the 'start-up funerals' they hold. When a start-up has failed, everyone gets together and holds a ceremony acknowledging that failure, the positives and negatives. It frees founders up to move forward quickly rather than having to move slowly through the stages of sadness, anger and grief.

"The best points of an idea are thereby retained and the less good discarded. We apply that to personal careers. When we view failure as a positive learning opportunity that releases us from the drive to perfection and empowers us to take risks. I think this is a strong concept and a senior lawyer I used it with recently had a lightbulb moment as we ran through this, which enabled her to move forward from a difficult point in her career," Mayall Fine said.

The increasing technological demands on us combined with globalisation and the responsibilities we as women often shoulder means that we can all too often find ourselves victims of overwhelm.

Besides confidence, balance is a huge issue for women at work.

"The other area both Alice and I struggle with and that we frequently hear about is balance. The increasing technological demands on us combined with globalisation and the responsibilities we as women often shoulder means that we can all too often find ourselves victims of being overwhelmed. The 'total switch-off' is a favourite of mine -- I even go so far as to suggest burnt-out clients actually lock their devices in a drawer in the evening and don't retrieve them until the following morning.

"But if the issue is more of a low level, persistent feeling of not quite having enough time to do anything well -- something to which I think we can all relate -- then a time log can also be transformative. For one week, you keep track of exactly what you do in every half an hour of your time. Studies of women doing this exercise showed that we almost universally spend less time actually working than we believe and more time on the other aspects of our lives. This black and white evidence that we are more balanced than we feel is powerful. Just seeing the fact that you have spent quality time with your kids every day, for example, when all you feel is overwork can have a huge impact on how you perceive your work life balance," Mayall Fine said.

As for career advice that affected their own careers, both women revealed they had had great advice from many women over the years, though Mayall Fine had one experience in particular that stuck with her.

"Tamara Box, Head of Structured Finance at law firm Reed Smith, and one of the founders of the 30% Club -- the body that drove female representation on FTSE Boards in the UK, talked to me about the 'Broken Cookie Syndrome'. As women, we are conditioned from a young age to always take the broken cookie, putting others before ourselves. But taking the whole cookie, putting ourselves forward and believing that we have as much right to go first, get a promotion or get what we want is actually a crucial step in grabbing hold of career success.

"As a mother of three, wife, friend, conscientious co-worker, I had long been guilty of putting others first -- since interviewing Tamara I am much better at (when appropriate!) prioritising myself," Mayall Fine said.

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