International Women’s Day: Q&A with Margaret Howson

Author Oumama Syassi
March 11, 2019

How do you define confidence, particularly in the workplace? 
It is the energy we convey when we have belief in our capabilities and values.  It requires that we are not being forced to act in an unnatural way.

How do you think the confidence gap affects women? 
It acts on women when they have to over-play their strengths.  I think it is a general lack of bravado or a willingness to speak up or to take the risk that would come with over-selling ones-self and potentially being exposed as someone with a higher sense of self-worth than is deserved.

Do you think women’s workplace confidence has improved over the past few decades? Please explain why. 
I believe that the trend is positive but that the phenomenon that HP encountered is still strongly present.  The improvement has come because women now see female role models at work who behave more naturally (they are not aping male traits) and who are combining motherhood and work.

How important have confidence and self-belief been in achieving your career goals? Please explain why. 
Really important.  I think that I have always been outspoken and willing to stand up for my principles.  Knowing that I was good at my job and adding value to the business gave me legitimacy for being so expressive.

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?
Not since the very first years of my career.  During that time, I probably relied on “fake it before you make it” to have the confidence to do things for the first time or take some brave decisions.

Can you give an example of a risk you’ve taken that has paid dividend?
I agreed to take a role in France on a local French contract in 2010.  This meant that I lived away during the week and commuted back to the UK at weekends – all at my own expense.  Aside from the cost, the move meant being separated from family during the week and a very short weekend in order to be at my desk on Monday morning.  Personally, it was a tough time, but professionally it was a huge opportunity which paved the way for future development.

How important is mentoring, coaching and sponsorship in helping women to grow their confidence at work? 
I think it is really important, although I never had the offer to be formally coached (which I think was a missed opportunity).  I now coach and mentor people regularly; it’s a way of getting direct feedback, a more strategic view of the business and can help avoid wasting time.

How can confidence-building be built into career development strategies? 
I suppose in the same way that any other soft-skill is addressed; by starting the conversation about this as a unmet need and offering solutions – be that tools, techniques, mentoring etc.

What can be done to ensure a woman being assertive in the workplace doesn’t negatively impact on colleagues’ perceptions of her? 
Honestly, I think that will probably require another generation of women to develop the confidence that stops them apologizing for bringing sensitivity and emotion into the workplace and insist on their right to equality.