Don't lose who you are. It may sound like simple advice, but it can help set you on the right path for your professional journey. I tell soon-to-be-graduates about to embark on their first jobs, as well as those who have several years of work experience: "You were hired for a reason. You were selected among a pool of qualified candidates for what you bring to the position and you need to stay true to yourself."
As the president of a business university, I see thousands of graduates leave our campus each year to enter the workforce. Our hope is that the strong foundation we provide them, which is based on their course work, internships, campus activities and relationships with faculty, friends and mentors, gives them the confidence and resilience they need to successfully navigate the real world.
Confidence in your abilities and who you are is more important than ever, particularly for young women just entering the workforce. Bain & Company's ongoing research on how and why women's career paths differ from men's drives that home. The company's 2014 U.S. gender parity research study found that 43 percent of women aspire to top management roles during the first two years of their careers, compared with 34 percent of men at that same stage. Both men and women feel equally confident in their ability to make this dream a reality. Yet within a few short years women's aspiration levels drop more than 60 percent while men's stay the same. This disheartening statistic underscores the harsh reality that many recent female grads begin their careers with confidence, but lose a great deal of it rather than gaining it as their experience grows.
One likely reason is that they are discouraged by what they witness in the workplace. According to the recent Women in the Workplace survey conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, women are 15 percent less likely than men to be promoted to the next level. Women are underrepresented at every level in corporations and, while it's common to attribute this discrepancy to women leaving jobs at higher rates than men or to the perceived difficulties of balancing work and family, this is not the case. According to the Women in the Workplace research, women often encounter unconscious barriers to advancement and more challenging paths to senior leadership than their male counterparts. Faced with uncertainty in their career advancement, many women feel that in order to be treated seriously, they need to change who they are and how they function.
This ambivalence can manifest itself in many ways. For instance, following law school I worked for the federal government in Washington, surrounded by male attorneys. In a sea of gray suits, I could have conformed to blend in. But that was never my style. I knew that I had been hired for a reason, for my distinctive qualities, and that it was ok to embrace my colorful dresses and not assume the characteristics of my male colleagues. I knew I could stay true to myself and still have my voice heard.
According to a 2011 McKinsey report, in the workplace men are typically promoted based on potential, while women need to demonstrate they are capable of doing the job to reach that next level. More so than men, women are often hesitant to volunteer for an assignment or take on a new role until they are confident they will succeed. I tell the women I mentor, as well as students at Bentley University, to remember that you were hired by your employer not only because they thought you could perform your current job successfully but because they saw your potential to grow and support the company.
The bottom line: to get ahead does not mean you need to change who you are. Don't be afraid to sing your own praises in an appropriate manner. Find a mentor who supports you and advocates for you. Most important, be the most confident version of yourself possible and it will pay off.