How to Own and Advocate for Your Professional Development

Interview with Mei Ouw for the Women in STEM, Reimagined masterclass.

If you have ever struggled to advocate for yourself instead of waiting for permission to step up to a leadership position or your next professional role, then you’re in the right place. 

We think that the above statement will apply to most people, especially women reading this article. Our guest, Mei Ouw is a coach for C-Suite and executive teams, working on behavioral flexibility and bringing fresh perspectives that lead to leadership solutions. And in her experience, the struggle to advocate for yourself instead of waiting for permission is still prominent and prevalent at the executive level. 

“I coached a senior HR professional who had no problem advocating for her company to sponsor an employee for an $80,000 MBA program,” Mei shares. “But she almost threw up at the idea of asking her company to sponsor a $7,000 certification for herself.” 

Where does this trend come from? In the often cited study popularized by the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, we see that only 7% of women negotiate salary, whereas 57% of men negotiate. So, even when women are getting offered the job, they often don’t negotiate. Because of this, men walk out with a higher salary even if they got the same original offer.

Women are socialized at a young age to be modest and focus on others. We watch our mothers take care of everyone and internalize that our role as women is to focus on others. This unconscious bias affects how we behave professionally. 

One reason we don’t push as hard for ourselves is because a lot of us have a feeling of “I’m not smart enough”, “I’m not capable enough”, or “I don’t deserve it”. These are direct quotes from some of Mei’s recent female clients. Each is an incredibly talented, high achieving woman, and yet they still doubt themselves. 

One client shared that she thinks, “I’m not the right person for the role unless someone else convinces me.” Another said, “putting myself forward feels unbearably uncomfortable.” A third client said that what holds her back is fear of rejection; “If someone taps me on the shoulder, and tells me to go for a role, then it’s less likely I’ll fail at getting the job.” 

At the core of these limiting beliefs and habitual thinking structures is that as a woman, validation and worth comes from outside, not within. In order to change these statistics, and improve women’s compensation in the workplace, Mei says we need to shift that thinking so the validation comes from inside. 

She struggles with this deep rooted conditioning too: “I’m an intelligent woman, but asking for something for myself is so hard.” Even me, Nicole, a trained coach, struggled and remember not negotiating early in my career because in my head, I was like– I’m just lucky to get a job right now. 

Also, another habitual thinking pattern that holds a lot of women back is the idea that rejection or failure means that there is something wrong with us. We are more likely to attribute any failure to some shortcoming in us, and so rejection means that there is something inherently wrong with us. 

Conversely, women are also more likely to attribute success to external forces, for example, the help of a team, luck or working really, really hard. 

“Saying this as an opinion, but an interesting question would be, do men have more capacity to hear the “no’s” because it doesn’t impact their self-worth?” Mei asks. Because self worth is tied up in external validation, women will do anything to avoid those “no’s”. 

Where does change start for women in leadership positions? For women starting out, Mei highly recommends that you invest in your own self development and do it early. Mei’s current clients (all in C-Suite positions), sought out her high-ticket coaching because they knew that they needed help navigating the complexity of the executive environment. Interestingly, they are currently all men, and they have no problem asking for help. Meanwhile, in Mei’s experience, women seem to be less likely to seek out outside professional development for themselves. 

The best starting point is to get a skilled and highly-trained coach who can help you identify limiting beliefs and habitual thinking structures. A habitual thinking structure example would be that it is common for women, when being recognized for their success, to give the accolades to someone else; for instance that their success is only because of the team. 

A good coach can help clear those habitual thinking structures and create new empowering ones. You can’t do it alone. I’m a career coach and the founder of the “Women in STEM, Reimagined” summit, and even I struggle with habitual thinking structures. There’s only so much I can coach myself through things, because I’m inside it. When you are in it, you don’t think to question things. So, it is necessary to have that second ear, regardless how much personal development experience you have. 

Missed Women in STEM, Reimagined? 

Mei Ouw. Mei has delivered over 6000 hours in coaching and facilitating group processes and has worked across all levels of leadership and primarily focuses on C suite and Executive teams. 

With a background in psychology, Mei has an in-depth understanding of human behaviour and works with clients to develop their behavioural flexibility and thinking, allowing them to see new perspectives and therefore creating more innovative and effective leadership solutions. 

Her insightful and direct approach adds a fresh perspective to situations, making her sought after in the leadership space.

Dr. Nicole Tschierske is a positive psychology coach who helps women in STEM get noticed in their company so they attract their next opportunity with total ease.

“Networking” makes you cringe? Get the 5 non-awkward strategies to promote your work and get noticed.