Competence without confidence rarely takes a person to the highest career levels. Although more women than men are now studying1 at the university level, women still lag behind in c-suite and other senior management positions globally. Among S&P 500 companies, females hold only 14,2 percent of top leadership jobs, and in FTSE 100 companies, a mere seven women hold the title of CEO or Chairman. While there may be a number of reasons for this gap, studies2 make it clear that one reason is self-doubt, especially when female professionals talk about their accomplishments at work. It directly affects women’s performance in job interviews, naturally. But there is good news for women who undersell themselves. You can learn effective techniques to project the confidence and competence you possess so that a hiring manager sees it too. Start with these interview tips.
For women who want to lead, it’s a must to master these six abilities:
1. Practice Relaxation
What does relaxing have to do with a job interview? A lot, actually. Nothing can ruin a meeting like nerves. Nearly everyone experiences anxiety before an interview – even seasoned professionals – but it can cause you to forget everything you’ve done to prepare, and it can manifest itself, to negative effect, in your body language (see number 4).
The best defense against nerves is to practice relaxation techniques before the interview. Imagine, in detail, a successful conversation with the hiring manager where you answer tough interview questions and pitch your strengths and qualifications. Listen to some relaxing music on the way to the appointment. Always arrive 10 minutes early for an interview and take a few minutes to compose yourself before you meet the hiring manager.
2. Be Verbally Strong and Confident
Women tend to downplay their accomplishments, sometimes referring to how their work was supported by others. But hiring managers want to hear about you – how you have organized, managed, innovated, and brought value to organizations before. Keep the focus on yourself and your hard work. Instead of: “I was fortunate enough to get promoted to the regional sales manager position” say “My performance breaking all sales goals is the main reason I was promoted to regional sales manager.” Instead of: “With the help of my amazing team, we won the Product of the Year Award,” say “I built and led an amazing team, and my effort paid off – we won the Product of the Year Award.”
Being a team player as well as leader is important in most positions, so it’s good to mention others you have supported or who have supported you. Just ensure you highlight your work first and avoid weak words or phrases like “helped”, “I was given a chance,” “I was lucky”, or “it just happened that way.”
3. Display Enthusiasm
Hiring managers are not just looking at a candidate’s skill set when they interview. They also want to see that the woman in front of them displays a deep interest in the company and is excited at the prospect of working there. You can and should display this enthusiasm in several ways. First, mention something positive about the organization when you first greet the interviewer. For example, compliment the wall art, how the lobby colors capture the brand, the creative office space, or the great view. This shows you are observant and pleased to be there. Second, during the interview discuss what qualities you admire in the company, and how they align with your own values and interests. Third, pose at least one question at the end of the interview that shows your enthusiasm about the position, for example, “I am really excited about this role and the possibility of contributing to the company’s success going forward. What are the next steps in the selection process?” You can also reiterate your positive impressions in your thank-you note.
4. Watch Your Body Language
Knowing how to use body language to your benefit is one of the most important interview tips for women. The way you position your body, especially in the first few minutes of an interview, can build trust and confidence between you and interviewer, or it can spell disaster. First impressions are mostly based on non-verbal signals, like physical appearance and posture. When greeting the hiring manager, make direct eye contact, and offer a firm handshake and a broad smile. During the interview, keep your chest open and shoulders down, and lean forward to show you are engaged in the discussion. Avoid gestures that make you appear small (which translates into weakness), including folded arms, hands on the lap, rounded shoulders or hanging head. Your goal is to appear open, friendly, professional and self-assured.
Re-checking your body language during the interview is important, especially when things get awkward. Perhaps the hiring manager has just asked a question and you don’t have the answer. Or she points out a skill that you’re missing but which is crucial to the job. A natural reaction to feeling vulnerable is to “fold in” the body, making it smaller. Resist the urge to do this. Maintain eye contact, lean forward, and give the most confident answer you can, for example, “I realize I will need to add that skill in order to perform this position. I am a fast learner, though, and always devote myself to getting up-to-speed as quickly as possible in a new job.”
5. Negotiate Compensation
Most companies expect to have to negotiate the salary and benefits with a new senior-level hire. But women are sometimes too willing to accept a compensation package without first trying to negotiate upward. You will no doubt have done research on salaries to know if the company’s offer is in line with the industry standard or not. If it seems too low, you have every right to ask for more, and do so in a way that you remain in a strong position. First, reiterate the value that you expect to bring to the organization based on your past performance. If the salary cannot be raised to your target but you still want the job, show flexibility in your willingness to negotiate on benefits, such as more holidays, a better office, or an assistant to support you.
6. Gather Information Through Questions
Asking questions during an interview serves two purposes: 1) it demonstrates your interest in the job, and 2) it allows you to determine whether the company is a good fit. Women should use the second purpose to collect information — subtly if need be — that may have an impact on their decision to accept a particular job offer. For instance, for a working mother who wants to know if the company allows flextime or a work-from-home option, it is better not to ask directly in an interview. Instead, pose the question: “What are the expected working hours and overnight travel requirements of this role?” Similarly, if a candidate is concerned about work-life balance, she might ask: “Can you tell me what the expectations are for someone in this position in the first year?”, or: “What does a typical work-week look like to the person in this position?” While companies are often eager to tout their benefits vis-à-vis flexible schedules and related perks, you should not miss the chance to probe into the company culture and its expectations of working hours if this matters to you.
As with interviews in general, preparation and practice beforehand are the most important factors for success. Women, however, may have to pay extra attention to selling themselves in an interview, through their words, enthusiasm and body language. If done correctly, it does not mean you’re pushy or arrogant. Rather, a woman who displays confidence and strength when discussing her suitability for a role lets her experience and ability shine through clearly. And that is what impresses hiring managers the most.
Kate Rodriguez is a freelance marketing copywriter based in Munich. She has over 20 years of professional experience in public and private organizations. A former international trade analyst for the U.S. government, she also worked as a university career coach, specializing in international career search. Most recently, she was employed at Experteer as a customer service agent and online marketing manager.