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London - Perched on a chair in front of my first boss, I finally found the courage to squeak the question that had caused me weeks of inner turmoil.
“Is it possible I might, er, be considered for a pay rise?” I asked, before stammering out why I, a news reporter with nearly three years’ experience, should now be earning more than a trainee’s salary.
He agreed my raise was long overdue. And though I left delighted, I was also annoyed I hadn’t pushed for it sooner. I always came up with 20 reasons why I didn’t deserve more money, and only a handful why I did.
It’s no secret that women often lack the professional self-confidence men sometimes seem to have in excess, but a recent study by Oxford University has brought home the extent of the problem.
While some might find it hard to imagine that any woman who achieves highly enough to get into an Oxbridge college would suffer self-doubt, according to the university’s careers service it’s a very real issue.
They found that while men and women were equally academically able, a significant number of women were shying away from jobs in sectors such as banking and management consultancy fearing they would not be successful at them.
Instead, they entered careers in areas perceived as more woman-friendly - such as teaching, publishing and marketing.
In addition, women were earning less on leaving Oxford than their male counterparts, partly because they were more likely to take lower-paid jobs, but also because they were far less likely to negotiate their first salaries.
Indeed, Cherie Blair recently blamed a 20 percent salary pay gap between the genders on women being “too nice” to ask for raises.
Jonathan Black, director of careers services at Oxford University, agrees, saying: “The only thing holding them back was the women themselves.
“This is a group who the outside world would think had won the lottery by getting into Oxford University, but they still lack self-confidence.
“It’s said that if you show women a job advert without the salary, they’ll think: ‘I could do that.’ But show it again with the salary and they’ll think: ‘I couldn’t achieve that.’?”
As a result of its findings, the university recently held its first “confidence” course for female undergraduates.
It was run by the Springboard Consultancy, which started a development programme for women at the BBC in the Eighties, after the corporation identified that few were getting into management positions.
Since then it has evolved into a course that has helped around 200,000 women worldwide. Its aims are to empower women to realise their goals.
Head of learning and development Dr Sue Hewitt says: “If a female student looks at an advert for a job with five things that you have to be able to do and they can do three of them, they won’t apply.
“But if a man looks at the same advert and can do three of the skills, he thinks he’s over-qualified and blags the rest of it. So it’s about getting women to realistically assess their potential, stand up and talk about themselves positively, and negotiate and challenge successfully.”
As Martha Mackenzie, Oxford University’s first female student union president in six years, says: “As a woman it can be very difficult to recognise that you’ve been a success and tell others about it without appearing boastful or arrogant.
“But it can be hard to sell yourself. It’s often ingrained in you to play down your achievements.”
Leadership coach Anni Townend, author of Assertiveness And Diversity, says being plagued by self-doubt can be very limiting once in a job.
“Some women lose out through not building relationships with colleagues because they are worried about being judged as not good enough,” she says.
So why do women find it so hard to shout about their achievements?
Sue Hewitt says society probably still expects women to be more modest than men, and that women instinctively want to be liked, so they avoid doing anything that will risk alienating others.
Anni Townend believes confidence is affected by how females are treated while growing up.
“There are women who have told me that no matter how well they did at school, they were never good enough for their parents,” she says. “As a result they never felt successful.”
Martha Mackenzie’s experience also suggests that women value personal relationships over their own ambitions.
She says: “I know one woman who didn’t run for a college position because she didn’t want to challenge a male friend. I don’t think if she had been a man there would have been the same consideration.”
Martha also believes that society’s focus on the way women look can also stop us pushing ourselves forward.
Indeed, recent research by Dove found that girls often feel held back by their appearance, with more than half of those aged 11-17 believing they would be happier if they were more physically attractive, and only one in three confident she will have a successful career.
Martha says: “A woman’s looks are often the number one factor by which she is judged to be worth something, as opposed to her intellect.”
She adds: “When I was running for the presidency, comments about my appearance were graffitied on my posters. It didn’t bother me hugely but it was still unpleasant and disappointing.”
As for me, letting my feelings about my appearance influence my confidence is certainly something I’ve experienced. But in the future, if I feel I deserve a pay rise, I won’t be holding back. - Daily Mail