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Interview with Sarah Fahy

Dalia Jennings Career Advice, International Women's Day, Senior Finance...

Brewer Morris is proud to be supporting International Women's Day 2019. International Women’s Day celebrates the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. Whilst we all know that gender parity within the workplace has improved over the past decades, we all also know that there is still a long way to go.

We would like to join the discussion and be part of International Women's Day 2019 #BalanceforBetter campaign on the 8th March by interviewing inspiring women we work with and, in particular, understanding the role confidence has played in their career.

We interviewed Sarah Fahy, Vice President, Global Tax Office Europe, Sony

How do you think the confidence gap affects women?

I think women tend to suffer disproportionately from confidence issues, which can hold them back from embracing opportunities and taking risks.  Very often, women take themselves out of the hiring or promotion equation, by simply not applying for something on the basis that they think they are not good enough and will be rejected.  As an employer that can be hugely frustrating and can be a real barrier to improving gender equality in the workplace.  We therefore need – as employers – to be acutely aware of this issue and ensure we are tailoring our hiring and performance management processes so that women are encouraged to apply and are not disadvantaged.

Do you think women’s workplace confidence has improved over the past few decades? Please explain why.

I think there is better support now being offered and acknowledgement by many organisations that their processes need to change if equality is truly to be achieved.  Nobody talked about the “imposter syndrome” when I was starting out in my career, although it was as real then as it is now.  However fundamentally I still see the same issues manifesting themselves over and over, with really smart young women struggling to advance because of a fundamental lack of belief in their own abilities.

Have you ever experienced imposter syndrome (where you doubt your achievements and have an internalised fear of being exposed as a “fraud”)? If so, how did you overcome it? 

Absolutely yes, and I still get those thoughts today.  However, I’m now better at talking myself out of it.  I was fortunate enough to have a career coach several years ago, and she helped me understand that our brains work by reinforcing messages.  If you are considering buying a red car, suddenly you’ll see red cars everywhere.  There’s no more of them today than there were yesterday, but your brain registers them more acutely.  It’s the same with how we think about ourselves.  It’s really important that we reinforce positive messages and outcomes rather than discount them. So if someone tells you that you did a great job, or made an insightful comment, it’s really important to really hear that and not reflexively say “oh it was nothing” or “oh it was the team really”. I made a point of telling myself when I’d done a good job or made a valuable contribution in a meeting and kept reinforcing that positive view of myself, and it really helped. Generally, we get huge amounts of positive feedback and it’s vitally important to how we feel about ourselves that we fully take that on board.

How much has risk-taking contributed to your career development?

A former boss once told me that if your job didn’t scare you a bit it was time to move on.  I think that’s right.  I need a challenge.  Trying something new and pushing out of your comfort zone can be terrifying, but it is important to remember that everybody else wants you to succeed too – the person who hired you or has given you this opportunity doesn’t want you to fail, and wouldn’t have chosen you if they didn’t have faith in your ability!  

How important is mentoring, coaching and sponsorship in helping women to grow their confidence at work?

They’re different things and I think they are all important. Whilst women continue to struggle to find strong female role models in many areas of society, having someone more senior or experienced than you share their own journey can be immensely powerful.  I think those of us who have fought our way up to senior positions owe it to those who come after us to help them up the ladder any way we can – and being genuine about our own struggles, insecurities and failures is immensely powerful.  We need to dispel the idea that women in positions of power or leadership are superwomen who are “nothing like me”.

What can be done to ensure a woman being assertive in the workplace doesn’t negatively impact on colleagues’ perceptions of her?

Would you even ask this question with the word “man” in it?  Being assertive is not a negative trait.  Being aggressive is.  We need to learn the difference.  For years, women have got to the top by being “just like the guys”.  Unfortunately when you are not being true to yourself, and you lose your authenticity, your behaviour can have very negative consequences because actually you are no longer in control.  My advice is be yourself.  Don’t be afraid to ask for things, be clear about what you want, ask for feedback, advice, clear structure around your career development.  If you disagree with someone, say so.  But you don’t have to shout or be rude to do that.  I think it’s also important to remember that not everybody at work has to be your friend.  You wouldn’t expect to like everybody you met at a party either.  That’s ok, you just have to work together, keep focussed on the job and don’t take things personally. it is important to remember that the true benefit of diversity is getting different perspectives on an issue.  We often assume that, because nobody else has made the point we are thinking of, it must therefore be wrong.  The truth is generally that nobody else thought of it, and if we don't speak up, that point will be missed, to the detriment of the organisation. Diverse teams make better decisions - provided that everyone's voice is heard.