Vaulting up the corporate ladder requires a lot more than inertia, or even years of diligent work. For those who want to make big career moves, it often means taking big risks.
The majority of women agree “believe people who take more career risks progress more quickly than others” – yet only 43% of women are willing to take the bigger risks that are associated with career advancement.
That’s according to KPMG’s new study “Women’s Leadership Study: Risk, Resilience, Reward.”
The study revealed several stark disconnects – like the fact that women’s desire to take career risk declines even as they gain more experience – but also opportunities for change and hope for the future.
“As I read through the report, in so many ways I connected the findings with my own experiences,” says Michele Meyer-Shipp, KPMG’s Chief Diversity Officer. “I, like many women, was taught growing up that if you work really hard you’ll be successful. I was never explicitly taught that there was more to it – like speaking up and taking risk.”
The KPMG study, which surveyed more than 2,000 women nationwide, found that pattern “repeats itself through the survey findings”: For example, 73% say working hard is the factor that has most contributed to their professional success. Overall, women have a “tendency to focus on behaviors that are task-oriented over those that are self-assertive.”
But women may fall behind if they lean too far into that line of thinking, Meyer-Shipp says.
“The bottom line is that taking risks in your career helps you reap great benefits,” she adds. “It helps immensely to have the courage of that conviction that you are going to go for what you want.”
That’s easier said than done, however as women and men receive quite different “messaging throughout their lives,” says Meyer-Shipp, the mother of three boys.
“As I watch my sons navigate the world, it’s clear they feel they can go forth and conquer the world,” she says. “They’re so confident. They take charge. Men are primed to be that way, where women are not.”
So why, exactly, aren’t women taking these risks? About 29% cited confidence as a major issue.
“It starts with confidence. Success in business correlates as much with confidence as it does with competence. And acting with confidence breeds confidence,” Laura Hay, Global Head of Insurance at KPMG, said in the report.
Hay provided tips for women who want to act with more confidence:
- “Make a conscious effort to ask for what you want. This requires being clear about your true motivations, wants and needs. Such self-knowledge is the foundation for confidence and greater assertiveness.
- Be aware of the impression you make – particularly your body language and tone of voice: establish your space, speak in a lower register (which some studies say can increase your sense of confidence and power) and maintain eye contact.
- Speak early, often and calmly. Even more important – have a point of view; don’t just act as a facilitator. And don’t be afraid to defend your position.
- Finally, take risks. No risk, no reward. We all know this, but fear of failure can sometimes prevent us from taking that critical next step. So, work on your mindset.”
Still, beyond women pushing themselves to become more confident and willing to take risks, Meyer-Shipp says that to effect lasting change men, leaders and organizations at large also must step up.
“They need to be active allies: engage women, mentor, sponsor, help them own their careers, ask them questions,” Meyer-Shipp says. “I’m hoping the study helps organizations see this issue of risk and of confidence is real, and that as a result they need to create that environment of inclusiveness that gives voice to marginalized groups.”
One intriguing finding from the study showed an especially marginalized group is grabbing opportunities: Women of color are the biggest potential risk-takers, with 57% saying they’re open to big career risks compared with only 38% of white women.
Meyer-Shipp suspects that’s because women of color already have to step up and speak up more than their white counterparts, so taking risks isn’t as big of a leap.
“As a woman of color, I know that message is so encoded in us that you don’t even think about it: If you want to move up you’re going to have to fight for that raise, take a risk with that new assignment, and overall be bold,” she says.
That’s the message that Meyer-Shipp received “from day one of my career,” she adds. “Coming up through law firms earlier in my career, it was just known that women of color don’t make partner. It’s another thing to navigate.”
The KPMG report shows positive signs, as well: 45% percent of women with less than five years’ experience say they are open to taking big career risks, versus 37% with 15+ years of experience.
These numbers could be in part because younger women are less likely to have the pressures of a mortgage, children, aging parents and other obligations that may come up later in life. But the figure still “gives me hope for the future,” Meyer-Shipp says.
It’s also motivating to see women’s issues come to the forefront with movements like #MeToo, and a slow but notable increase in women ascending to senior leadership positions.
But though there are inequities that remain, Meyer-Shipp recommends that rather than wait for the world to change, women should also work to change their mindsets. Everyone fails; everyone feels like an impostor at times. The key is to push through that fear – sometimes daily — and remember that big risks can garner big rewards.
“I’m 20 years into my career, and I find myself hesitating sometimes,” Meyer-Shipp says. “Just this week I was on a conference call with 10 people and I had really specific ideas for feedback, but I found myself not wanting to speak first or come across too strongly. I had to intentionally fight against that – and that kind of thing isn’t easy, but we all have to advocate for ourselves if we want to move up.”