I work in the business of matching aptitude, drive and personality with the operating and development requirements of businesses; big business, small business, niche business, broad business – they all need different skill sets at different times. I work closely with my clients to build robust succession plans, strong project teams and inspiring leadership line-ups, as well as quick fixes and temporary solutions. I am also very aware of building diverse and inclusive short lists of talent, this isn’t something that I necessarily think about – I just do it as a matter of course. I have clients that have set specific targets around diversity, and expect their suppliers to deliver on these objectives, so I must be mindful, however I will always look for the right person.

Being completely honest, until about 4 years ago I didn’t recognise that there was a problem around diversity in the workforce, I didn’t even realise that women were under-represented in leadership roles – particularly in tech and digital. Maybe I just didn’t see gender, or realise that this could be a problem, and until recently I was shocked at the figures and the data quoted to back up calls for a more inclusive workforce. Particularly around the number of females that drop out of specific STEM and Digital roles within 5 years of graduating or starting work, that seems to be the main issue with the female leadership pipeline. What happens after 5 years, where do the women go, who does the work?

I started to realise I was the only female in some meetings and conferences, or when I was arranging interviews it was a male dominated interview panel. I think the very first time I became acutely aware of gender was at a dinner, it was hosted by a well-known name in technology. It was a grand affair in a nice hotel, lots of good food and lovely wine – there were at least 8 tables of 10, plus a top table, and I was the only female in the room other than a few of the servers and the lovely lady in charge of setting up the laptop for the presentation. Now I know that I may be one of the only women that fancied a free meal that night and was genuinely interested in the topic, I also know these types of events can be intimidating or indeed dull and maybe all the other women were busy. It was a great night, I learned a huge amount about disruptive technology that would, without doubt, change the face of various aspects of everyday life. However that experience got me to thinking and since then I have been actively involved in understanding what makes women tick and what I can do to help in my little corner of the world.

When I look at applications, I know I will get at least twice as many male applicants as I do female. What I know from experience, when a women reads a role profile she will not put herself out there unless she is entirely confident she can do the job and ticks all the boxes. When a women is preparing for interview she will prepare for most eventualities and do a huge amount of due diligence and research on the company, the interviewer; as well as come up with plan a, b and c for transport and directions to the location, taking into account traffic, weather and all possible interference. I know to get as much feedback as possible whether a women is offered the role or not – she will critique her performance and kick herself over the smallest of details and apologise profusely – even when she gets the job.

So what to do, how will we build the pipeline, well the first thing I suggest is stop apologising, I remember speaking to a managing partner of a large legal firm not so long ago, she had recently realised that even in her current senior role she still apologises to all those around her if she has to excuse herself from a meeting early. “I must go, really sorry, I need to pick up the kids, Sophie has ballet, Jake has tennis. Sorry, see you tomorrow”. She knows that she could get up and leave, however this overwhelming urge to apologise with additional information surpasses all other sense. She literally can’t stop apologising.

Why do we do that, we not only apologise but we then offer unnecessary detail and more often than not we apologise again. I made a deal with myself months ago not to apologise unless I am genuinely sorry – I literally break that deal daily.

  • When people walk into me in the street, I apologise, it is quite ridiculous, what am I doing – it is an involuntary apology.
  • When I received an undercooked chicken breast in a very expensive restaurant, my complaint was worded “sorry, my chicken seems to be raw”…..as if I would be sorry that they gave me salmonella.
  • When we run out of milk in the house I apologise, even although there is one other “grown up” in the house, perfectly able to buy a pint of milk. My husband states a fact “there is no milk”, I respond “sorry, we must have used it, go get some from the shop”……sneaky little sorry…..I was not even a tiny bit sorry, I don’t like milk!!
  • I chased up some information from a client, my call started “sorry, I was expecting you to come back to me last week”

So these involuntary apologies, what are they, well I can only guess they are a way of apologising for our inability to be what we aim to be – which in most cases is perfect. I am not sorry about 87% of the time I use the word, so I figure it is a pre-programmed word that I seem to use without even realising. I have drawn a link between women apologising and women not applying for new roles; it is because women can’t send an apology along with their application, on the off chance it isn’t a perfect match.

I work with some amazing and hugely talented female clients, candidates and colleagues, however it’s only since I started in a Board position with Women In Banking & Finance and actually started looking at gender differences objectively, probing a little further without fear of upset. I have realised that most of these strong, empowered female leaders are in the main a little insecure, slightly lacking confidence and occasionally feeling very isolated and nervous in their own skin. I am not tarring everyone with the same brush, there are women that ooze confidence and love the challenge inside and out, but I feel certain that these women are in the minority and most women are actually feeling very different on the inside, inadvertently apologising as they go.

The focus on diversity is magnifying the problem, I firmly believe there is no malice, in the main no debauchery and most importantly nothing that can’t be fixed – I encourage and applaud my clients that are keen to have a diverse blend across their entire staff. What I will do is encourage everyone to aim high and go for that job that seems out of reach, you might not get it but you will learn from the experience and make new contacts. You will also realise that whilst you won’t always achieve perfection, nothing awful will happen, don’t put yourself under unnecessary pressure but don’t shy away from the challenge. When you feel the word “sorry” sneaking out, just be aware of it – were you really sorry??