Julie Moulsdale: Confidence crisis in construction

Ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday, Julie Moulsdale from Perceptive Communicators details the crisis of confidence of women and how this is particularly important to address in construction given the poor representation of females in the sector.

Julie Moulsdale: Confidence crisis in construction

Julie Moulsdale

In construction we are constantly hearing about diversity and how we can recruit and retain more females so in future women represent more than 20% of the workforce. So what’s the one piece of advice you would give to encourage female talent? In advance of International Women’s Day I asked this very question of trusted friends and colleagues. Without wishing to prejudge, I had expected comments about supporting development and creating a more positive work experience. But it was much more personal than that. The overwhelming theme was confidence, encouraging women to be more confident and take more risks, particularly in their careers.

So what can be done to address this confidence gap affecting half of our population?  

There’s no quick fix unfortunately. Apparently, until the age of eight, confidence levels in girls and boys are similar; it’s only after this age that girls’ levels start to dip. Unfortunately, this confidence equality never recovers. Even in a gender-neutral era, from the cradle we are bombarded with gender stereotypes of what girls and boys should be. Maybe by the age of eight some of this has seeped into our consciousness?

Perhaps I’ve subliminally indoctrinated her, but my youngest daughter loves all things traditionally non-girly; she adores and thrives on football, technology, science and maths. In the wider world, I’m pleased to say I see her interests being positively encouraged in the vast majority of situations. But little chinks of prejudice remain, including being asked if my daughter would mind being in a more advanced maths team with all boys. A well-intended question no doubt, yet still laden with stereotypical baggage.  

Research has shown that in the Western World we equate confidence with competence. So the more confident a person appears, the more competent we believe they are. I’m sure we all have a few examples of people we’ve known who are supremely confident, yet nowhere near as competent as they would have you believe. So even being aware of this bias could help, focussing on evidence of competence rather than just the confidence being displayed. 

The societal shift created by movements like #MeToo is very encouraging, but are there changes we can make within ourselves as women that will also create a significant shift in encouraging female talent and boosting confidence? If confidence is equated with competence, how can we confidently demonstrate our skills and experience? What is holding us back from doing this?

Specialising in communications in construction, we are all about building and protecting reputations to help achieve desired goals. While women are naturally good communicators, in my experience they often tend to trail behind men in taking opportunities to demonstrate their competence. This includes opportunities to provide a media comment to using LinkedIn as a way to properly demonstrate their competence or, heaven forbid, appearing as a panellist or speaker at an event.

Men consistently outnumber women as commentators in the media, on TV panels and as speakers at events. In my experience that’s because not only are men given more opportunities, but they also seize more. At Perceptive we are trying to make small difference by ensuring that while men outnumber women in the sector by four to one, our own events have at least 50% female panels and speakers and encouraging and supporting our team with such opportunities.

Our events have featured many inspiring role models from construction and property, including Ann Allen of the University of Glasgow, Helen Forsyth of Berwickshire Housing Association, Lorraine Usher of Loreburn Housing Association and Marion Forbes of Mactaggart & Mickel Group. All of these women are very talented, with amazing experience and skills which they have generously shared with male and female audiences at our construction industry events. But this is just the tip of the confidence crisis.

Many people who kindly shared their views on encouraging female talent commented on the importance of supporting females from an early age and throughout their careers. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by very supportive colleagues, mentors, family and friends. This support has indeed been instrumental in building a multi-award-winning company and the best team I’ve ever worked with. And yet, like many other women – including Michelle Obama, there remains an undercurrent of discouragement about putting my head above the parapet. Having spoken to dozens of men and women, many of whom are at the top of their careers or chosen life paths, the vast majority of women share these confidence zapping thoughts. Men? Not so much.

Time and again research has shown success and likeability in women are mutually exclusive, so maybe that’s one of the factors holding us back. But it is difficult to be what you can’t see, which is surely crucial in such a male-dominated sector,  so to encourage other women and the next generation, maybe it’s time to take a risk and seize that next opportunity to shine with both hands?

  • Julie Moulsdale is managing director of multi-award-winning communications consultancy Perceptive Communicators which specialises in construction

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