Empowering Women

Risk-taking is vital for women who want to successfully advance to leadership positions at their workplace.
Betsy Meter
Betsy Meter // Photograph by Martin Vecchio

Women looking to move into leadership positions in today’s workplace may benefit by being more self-assertive and taking more risks over the course of their careers. That’s according to a new 2019 KPMG Women’s Leadership Study.

When it comes to risk-taking in the workplace, seven in 10 women (69 percent) are open to taking small risks to further their career. Far fewer (43 percent), however, are open to taking larger risks that may be associated with career advancement, according to the study of more than 2,000 professional women.


Playing to win? Or playing not to lose?

The study reveals why risk-taking is vital for women who want to advance to leadership roles in the workplace. Perhaps surprisingly, a woman’s inclination to take risks declines as she becomes more experienced in her career, even as her self-confidence grows.

According to Michele Meyer-Shipp, chief diversity officer at KPMG, women often find themselves in a bind. “In an effort to preserve their gains, they’re often playing not to lose instead of playing to win,” Meyer-Shipp says. “We also noticed that women said they’re most confident taking risks that benefit their organizations, and are less likely to take risks associated with a personal gain or benefit.”

Need to retain, grow female leaders

Despite these findings, women are on the right path and things have improved significantly, with an increase in female role models. But progress is slow and there continue to be challenges that hold women back.

Several recent studies and articles echo similar themes. For example, a Jan. 16, 2019, U.S. News & World Report article says that fear of failure can plague women and be an obstacle to success. It goes on to say that “statistics on women in major leadership roles underscore the need to retain and grow the number of women leaders.”

In turn, data released last September by the Pew Research Center found that in 2017 there were 32 women leading Fortune 500 companies — an all-time high of 6.4 percent.

It starts with confidence, because success in business correlates as much with confidence as it does with competence.

Confidence correlates with competence

So how can we empower more women to consider smart risk-taking and encourage them to take action that will ultimately benefit not only themselves, but also the organization as a whole? It starts with confidence.

I’ve seen this play out in my own career and those of others who I’ve managed and mentored over the years. In fact, a lack of self-confidence can really hold some women back, which is why I’m so passionate about supporting and mentoring other women.

Concerns with perception

So, what specifically is holding women back? The results gleaned from the KPMG survey provide some fascinating insights, which may include a concern with how others perceive them. For example, when asked generally about situations at their companies that cause concern, respondents cited:

• Looking like they don’t know as much as they should (41 percent).

• Being ignored or not taken seriously (40 percent).

• Failing something they try (37 percent).

• Looking like they’re doing something or saying something that isn’t smart (36 percent).

Women can’t go it alone

Although women may benefit by taking more risks over the course of their careers, they can’t go it alone. Organizations must provide supportive structures, including inclusive and diverse workplaces, professional development, and mentorship and sponsorship opportunities.

While most of the women (71 percent) responding to the survey believe their company is accepting of them taking a risk and failing, they also think that more can be done to encourage risk-taking among women, such as:

• Offering more training opportunities (41 percent).

• Encouraging mentorship (33 percent).

• Offering more flexibility for employees to be able to take more risks (28 percent).

Tips for building more confidence

Following are tips to help women be more confident:

• Make a conscious effort to ask for what you want.

– This requires being clear about your needs.

– Such self-knowledge is the foundation for confidence and greater assertiveness.

• Speak early, often, and calmly, and have a point of view; don’t just act as a facilitator.

Also, don’t be afraid to defend your position.

• Take risks; no risk = no reward.

Last but not least, each of us must decide what success looks like. When we own our own professional journey, failure isn’t an option.

Betsy Meter is Michigan managing partner of KPMG LLP in Detroit, a leading global professional services firm providing audit, tax, and advisory services to clients.

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