International Women’s Day: Q&A with Olga McSweeney

March 23, 2019

Frazer Jones is proud to be supporting International Women’s Day 2019. International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Whilst we all know that gender parity within the workplace has improved over the past decades, we all also know that there is still a long way to go.

We would like to join the discussion and be part of International Women’s Day 2019 #BalanceforBetter campaign on the 8th March by interviewing inspiring women we work with and, in particular, understanding the role confidence has played in their career.

Frazer Jones interviewed Olga McSweeney, Director for Strategic Projects, Tax Stream, BDO

How do you define confidence, particularly in the workplace?

For me being confident in the workplace means that I feel that my thoughts and suggestions have value because of my unique perspective, expertise and experience and I don’t hesitate to share them in equal measure with my team or with the most senior people in the organisation.

Do you think women’s workplace confidence has improved over the past few decades? Please explain why.

Unless you’ve undertaken empirical research on this particular issue, you can only go by your own experience. On my personal career journey I have met a great number of women who are not just extremely intelligent and competent, but who are also very confident about their abilities. More often their doubt about whether or not they would get the next promotion or the big job, was less about how they judged their own abilities and more about what they imagined those with the responsibility of making those decisions thought about their ambition, given their existing or potential family commitments. So, in my view women’s confidence in the workplace has improved, what’s frustrating is that their representation at the top level has not increased in the way we might have expected a couple of decades ago. Even in the HR profession, which is very much female dominated, women represent 70% of those in the lower and middle ranks, and men represent 70% in the mid to senior ranks (People Management, 2017). In 2018 we actually saw a drop in women occupying the CEO roles in the top FTSE 250 according to analysis from Cranfield University. I think the issues that are at play here go far beyond how confident women perceive themselves to be.

How important have confidence and self-belief been in achieving your career goals? Please explain why.

Hugely important. I have spent most of my career so far working in Legal and Accountancy sectors, interacting mostly with senior stakeholders who, being partners and members of highly respected professions, tend to be rather self-assured and forthright. In my particular case, I would frequently be the only woman in the room, the only one not sharing their profession and qualifications and the only one speaking with a foreign accent. I definitely feel I had a few things to overcome in terms of perceptions and potential bias. It has been my unwavering confidence and commitment to relationship building that have allowed me to keep bringing something new and valuable to the table and to be recognised for it.

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome (where you doubt your achievements and have an internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”)? If so, how did you overcome it?

I can certainly relate to this kind of experience, especially connected to applying for new roles. A few times in my career I’d find myself excited about a new opportunity but hesitant because of one or two requirements which might be a stretch, even though I have just the right transferable skills or experiences. In those moments I remind myself of the research on how men only need to satisfy 60% of the job requirements in order to feel perfectly comfortable to apply for new positions. I would always tell myself that employers never get one candidate who literally ticks every single box, so I will let the interviewer decide whether those few items that I might lack are as important as the many things that I can offer the organisation. What I encourage people to consider is that the worst thing that can happen in situations like these is that they don’t get that job. But you might be the right person regardless. One thing is for sure, you won’t get that opportunity, if you don’t show up. 

How much has risk-taking contributed to your career development?

I firmly believe that taking risks plays a very important part in career development and it certainly has for me. Especially in some professions, you have to move around regularly to progress through the ranks or to have exposure to new experiences for your portfolio. Some people deliberately pursue contract work to build a versatile and impressive portfolio or to gain a promotion they would not get in their current organisation. Many of my career shifts came through lateral moves. For example, when I decided that I wanted to pursue a career as an HR Business Partner I simply had to move to an organisation that was large enough to have such a role in its structure. However, it is very important to realise that sometimes you might not be in the right position to take big risks, and it is not for lack of courage or foresight. If you have significant responsibilities and commitments in your personal life (e.g. children), you have to be pragmatic, at least for a period of your life. You might not be able to just walk away and start your dream business. Luckily, circumstances change and so can your attitude to risk taking. Or at the very least you can take smaller risk, like putting your hand up for a new project or additional responsibility at work to keep growing.

Can you give an example of a risk you’ve taken that has paid dividend?

I have recently had quite a big change in my career path. After 17 years in HR I am now in a business transformation job. At the time when I was going through the application and interview process, there was a lot going on for me outside of work and it did cross my mind that staying put would be the safer option. However, I was lucky enough to have people around me who were incredibly supportive and who were expressing such firm confidence in me that I had to believe that I had enough resilience to face my challenges. I am glad I took that risk as I sincerely love my new job and I am excited about the career opportunities it holds for me in the future.

How important is mentoring, coaching and sponsorship in helping women to grow their confidence at work?

All three are interventions play their role. However, as one of the Harvard Business Review articles aptly puts it, women are “over-mentored and under-sponsored”. Based on two decades of observing the internal workings of professional services organisations, I could not agree more. I know of women who were encouraged to work with a coach on developing gravitas, which in the dictionary is defined as “dignity, seriousness, solemnity, gravity”, but let’s face it often stands for “we’d be more impressed if you were a middle aged man”. I don’t think a coach can really help here. Of course, I believe that mentoring and coaching can lead to personal and professional growth and thus success. However, these relationships are contained between the two participating people. Sponsorship is a different kind of relationship, it sits within the organisational system and the sponsor uses his or her influence to help their protégé get access to the right knowledge, people and opportunities. Of course, you’d feel more confident when someone is prepared to champion you publically and stick their neck out for you. 

How can confidence-building be built into career development strategies?

Further research in to the confidence gap between men and women found that the problem is not actually that women lack internal self-confidence, but that the others perceive them as less confident based on the commonly accepted views of what confidence looks like, e.g. competitiveness, risk-taking, in other words behaviours traditionally associated with masculinity. When we keep telling women that they need to work on their confidence and build it into their career development, we are saying it is all on you, women, it’s your problem. This seems neither fair nor productive. How about we look at this not at the level of an individual woman, but at the level of organisational culture? Organisations need to put in place robust systems and structure to ensure that as men and women progress through their career, they have equal access to good sponsorship and equal opportunities to contribute to debate.