International Women’s Day: Q&A with Sarah Smith

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 Sarah Smith, Head of HR, ARI Fleet UK

How do you define confidence, particularly in the workplace?

Confidence is your belief in your ability and judgement.

How do you think the confidence gap affects women?

I think the confidence gap affects everyone, but particularly women who are generally very critical of themselves and other women, resulting in them being less likely to volunteer for new projects and / or positions.

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

I think, on the whole, women’s workplace confidence has improved over the past few decades as there are more female role models in senior positions, there has been improved access to childcare, resulting in more women in the workplace and improved academic success for girls as they work through the education system.

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

Confidence and self-belief have been hugely important in achieving my career goals, particularly when working in male dominated environments with men who say they are supportive of women, but in reality are the complete opposite.  I have worked with men in my previous roles who have been very unsupportive and who have made me feel that I’m not able to do my job, by the comments, exclusion from key HR activities and challenging communication style.

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?

Yes, I have experienced imposter syndrome and still continue to do so, occasionally.  When I feel this way I think back to all the things I have accomplished personally and professionally and remind myself that it was me who achieved these things and that I do know what I’m doing  Interestingly, I am also aware of men who feel this way, on occasion.

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

I don’t feel that risk taking has contributed greatly to my career development.  I feel that I have been considered in the decisions I have taken. 

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

I think that moving to a new company is always a risk; I moved from one company after 9 years, in order to progress with my HR career and realised very quickly that it was the wrong decision.  I resigned after 7 months and took a maternity leave position which enabled me to gain experience in another sector and also enabled me to gain significant HR experience at HRO level.  The positive outcome of this was that my salary in my next permanent role was a significant increase. 

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

I believe that this very much depends on an individual and their preference and level of self-confidence.  I feel that I have had no mentoring or coaching since c2006 as I seem to have worked for managers / directors who, have either been based in another country (and therefore unaware of the challenges / requirements of UK employees), or been dis-interested and have left me to get on with the job.  I feel that I have support in my current role from other managers, both male and female and this has been invaluable in grounding me and enabling me to ‘sense-check’ decisions and responses. 

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

I believe that confidence can be built into career development strategies by empowering employees and supporting them with decision making, providing the appropriate training and development, to ensure they are competent, thus increasing their confidence and encouraging conversations if and when errors are made, so that these become learning opportunities.  Employees additionally need to be prepared to work hard to improve their confidence, think positively and where necessary evaluate their own weaknesses to improve themselves.

What can be done to ensure a woman being assertive in the workplace doesn’t negatively impact on colleagues’ perceptions of her?

There is a ‘fine line’ between being assertive and being aggressive and this is a balance that takes skill to achieve.  To avoid any negative perceptions women (and men) need to ensure that they are not aggressive or confrontational and communicate their ideas clearly and calmly and avoid drama.  I think that taking a collaborative approach and summarising the views of others, alongside their own ideas, backing this up with factual reasoning and keeping emotions out of any situation should avoid thoughts that a women (or man) is being aggressive.