Vote of confidence

As older, male vets who own practices, sit on boards and occupy other leadership positions age and retire, opportunities abound for female vets eager to climb the career ladder. But is a lack of professional confidence holding women back? By Angela Tufvesson

There’s no doubt working women of today enjoy greater equality with their male counterparts than generations past. More women gain university degrees, women make up just under half of the workforce and female executives are closing the gender gap in management positions. In the veterinary profession, almost 80 per cent of university graduates and more than 60 per cent of practitioners are female.

Yet men continue to get promoted faster and paid more, even in female-dominated industries like vet science where most senior positions are still occupied by men. The reasons for this are complex but an emerging field of research reveals that many women lack what men ooze: confidence.

Study after study reveals that men back themselves on the job while women consistently underestimate their professional abilities. Men initiate salary negotiations about four times as often as women, and when they do negotiate, women typically ask for and get 30 per cent less than men. Women are selected less often to lead than their male peers, which one study attributes to men’s overconfidence in their past performance.

In their book Leaders of the Pack: Women and the Future of Veterinary Medicine, Julie Kumble and Donald F. Smith report that female vets are less comfortable in salary negotiations, are more willing to accept lower-paying roles with flexible conditions and are more likely to undercharge clients than male vets.

The confidence gap starts young, especially in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), with one recent study published in the journal Frontiers of Psychology finding that boys rate their mathematics ability 27 per cent higher than girls even when there’s no difference between the two groups.

Jo McAlpine, a senior facilitator and executive coach at Women & Leadership Australia, says differences in how boys and girls are raised are a significant contributor to the gap

“At school right throughout the Western world, young girls are often rewarded for hard work and boys are rewarded for behaving,” she says.

“Research has shown that that’s where the confidence issues start because in order for girls to do well they have to work hard to be perfect, whereas for boys the feedback they get is to just behave themselves and sometimes sit down.”

This bodes well for girls in educational settings where academic aptitude matters—indeed, girls continue to outperform boys in the final year of school and attend university in far greater numbers—but trouble strikes when they reach the workplace.

“Women can have perfectionist tendencies and only go for a role when they have 100 per cent of the criteria, whereas we know from the research that a man will go for a role when he has 60 per cent of the qualities needed for that role,” says McAlpine. “These sorts of messages combine and lead women to think, ‘I won’t put my head up, I won’t stand out from the crowd and I’ll judge myself as being not quite good enough’.”

The biggest thing that women can do is … to have a network of peers that … challenges that imposter syndrome, that challenges your ideas about what you need to be and drops a bit of the perfectionism.”—Dr Jane Lord, Charles Sturt University

This is what’s known as ‘imposter syndrome’—a nagging feeling that you’re not successful despite evidence to the contrary, and a fear that you’ll be unmasked at any moment and revealed as a fraud.

It was coined by researchers in the 1970s to explain why high-achieving women struggled to comprehend their success and is believed to affect an estimated 70 per cent of people. Even Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg isn’t immune, telling the authors of The Confidence Code in an interview, “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.”

According to business coach Suzanne Mercier, CEO of Imposterhood, which teaches women to overcome imposter syndrome, the problem is women attribute professional success to external factors while men own it.

“Men tend to give themselves credit for the success that they’ve achieved and look for blame outside themselves for anything that goes wrong,” she says. “Women do the opposite—they tend to internalise the problem and externalise the success. Then what happens is that anyone who has that feeling of self-doubt has a tendency to experience imposter syndrome.”

Crucially, Mercier says women are at a disadvantage in the workplace because confidence is often perceived as competence. “Men are taught to fake it until they make it if they don’t feel confident,” she says. “Women who aren’t comfortable faking it until they make it— and that is the majority—do not show up as confident, and therefore people put a question mark on their competence.”

The irony is that imposter syndrome is actually correlated with success and people who don’t suffer from it are more likely to be the real frauds. A cognitive bias known as the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect’ demonstrates that people with poor skills tend to think they’re more competent than they really are, whereas competent people are more likely to lack confidence in their ability.

So what can female vets do to close the gap between competence and confidence, especially given the opportunities that an increasingly femininised industry affords?

Dr Jane Lord, a lecturer in small animal practice at Charles Sturt University and qualified vet with a background in private practice, says a solid network of professional contacts can help female vets to navigate a successful career path. “It’s important to have a really good support structure, whether it be your peers or somebody that acts as a mentor,” she says.

McAlpine agrees that peers can offer valuable support. “The biggest thing that women can do is to socialise with other women, to have a network of peers that helps challenge some of your mindsets, that challenges that imposter syndrome, that challenges your ideas about what you need to be and drops a bit of the perfectionism,” she says.

Plus, Dr Lord says focusing on clinical skills is an effective confidence-building strategy. “I’m of the generation where you had to be out there having a go because there were more males than females,” she says. “We come with a work ethic that says, ‘I’m going to give it a go and I’m going to do this quietly because I know I can do it and I’ll prove it to the males that I can do it’.

“We’ve got female graduates working in extremely rural practices and out on boats in really male-dominated environments. They’re been trained with a belief that they’re able to do the work.”

Vet Practice magazine and its associated website is published by Engage Media. All material is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced in any form without prior written permission. Explore how our content marketing agency can help grow your business at Engage Content or at YourBlogPosts.com.

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