Do You Know the Rules of the Career Advancement Game?

I recently read an interesting article reflecting on a piece of research about the differences between men and women when applying for jobs. It’s something you may be familiar with, the widely quoted Hewlett Packard internal research suggesting women will only apply for a role if they match 100% of the job criteria but men will apply when they only match 60% of the criteria.


There has been quite a bit of analysis and discussion about the rationale for this and the commonly held assertion is that in general, women are less confident than men.  According to some researchers, women are genetically, biologically and socially wired to be less confident than men. Perhaps from an evolutionary perspective our brains are wired to scan the environment for threats so we can metaphorically protect the offspring in our care while the men are off hunting woolly mammoths - ergo less confident in scenarios that feel threatening. You can read more abut these differences and how they contribute to women’s lower confidence in Katty Kay and Claire Shipman’s book The Confidence Code:  The Science And Art Of Self-Assurance - What Women Should Know.

However thinker, coach and author, Tara Mohr, wasn’t convinced that the issue could be put down purely to low confidence. Mohr published an article on the HBR Blog last year - Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified – disputing low confidence is the issue. (Mohr has also written a book Playing Big: Find Your Voice, Your Mission, Your Message). Additionally I’m fairly confident (pun intended) that we all know super confident women (and not so confident men) who might blow the low confidence theory out of the water.

Mohr was so skeptical that she further explored the question “What if there were something else at play?”  She surveyed more than 1000 men and women on the topic of why they didn’t apply for roles and here is what she found:

  • “people [male and female] who weren’t applying believed they needed the qualifications not to do the job well, but to be hired in the first place. They thought that the required qualifications were…well, required qualifications. They didn’t see the hiring process as one where advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise could overcome not having the skills and experiences outlined in the job qualifications.”
  • “Another 22% of women indicated their top reason was, “I didn’t think they would hire me since I didn’t meet the qualifications and I didn’t want to put myself out there if I was likely to fail.”

My interpretation? Those who didn’t apply unless they had 100% of the criteria didn’t understand the rules of that particular game well -  the rules of engagement, those subtle signals and guidelines of office politics, and/or culture and recruitment, that vary from organisation to organisation. They didn't understand that advocacy, relationships and creative approaches were actually allowed in this "career advancement game" and thought that compliance and matching were required.  There is also some evidence that failures of women are remembered far longer than failures of men in some circumstances - so its quite easy to understand the avoidance of failure behaviour. 

As young women we are socialised to be “good little girls”, compliant, to play by the rules and not to be bossy. These behaviours are reinforced at home, in school and in social settings. These rules are also reinforced in the workplace and with unconscious bias at play i.e. men and women judging women negatively if they display behaviours that are non-compliant, bossy or perceived as breaking rules.

Perhaps as women we’ve interpreted the "career advancement game" as meaning doing the right thing, being correct and not failing. And yet its entirely possible that we are actually playing the wrong game, and that the rules we thought applied aren’t necessarily the rules of this new game – that of landing exciting leadership roles, or climbing the corporate ladder.

As historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich is famously quoted as saying,

Well behaved women seldom make history.

Let’s learn to understand this career game better, reinterpret the rules of career advancement and then get out there and make some history.

Vive la révolution! #ambitionrevolution

  • I am the creator of The Ambition Revolution – the science and art of amping smart and savvy.

  • I mentor busy professionals to ensure they remain  strategic, agile and focused on the bigger game.

  • I also work with organisations who are trying to increase the profile of women in leadership, but are struggling to do so.

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