The perfect candidate: She doesn't exist, so it may as well be you
It's one of those figures we'll never know: How many women have seriously thought about applying for a role but self-selected themselves out of contention because they didn't think they had the skills and experience to meet all of the criteria in the job description.
But it's a figure that may hold some responsibility for the lack of women in senior leadership positions, especially if what we hear anecdotally is true – that men will still apply for positions when they know they're not 100% qualified. As executive search recruiter Judith Beck recently told me, women are much more "modest" in their job application approach and will avoid certain positions if they don't believe they have the full set of skills required. "A man does not think like this. He thinks, 'I have four of the ten necessary skills, I'm the best man for the job'," she said.
Employers search for the perfect candidate – an ideal individual who can be explained on paper but like a great character in a book, can never actually exist. As candidates, some of us will do what we can do be that person only to give up when we inevitably fall short.
Everyone falls short in the end, whether they get the job or not. The perfect candidate does not exist – even the ones who can tick all the boxes on paper.
According to a number of senior women at a Women's Agenda and Women on Boards roundtable event, it's time to rethink how we think about the selection criteria in job descriptions.
It should be a guide to how the employer's thinking about the position, company director Michelle Tredenick said during the discussion, rather than a specification brief on exactly what's needed in order to fill the role. "I completely ignore selection criteria," she said. "It's your CV more than selection criteria that matters. It's the mechanism that gets you to see somebody, and it's from there that the selection process begins."
So should you simply tell a few white lies in order to get in the door? Use your experience instead, added Tredenick. "I think you can certainly generalise your experience to be helpful for you. And you can also put a really strong case out for what you think you can offer regardless of ticking all the boxes. Assert your own values."
Lawyer and company director Nicki Bowman shared her own story on successfully applying for a job at BHP Billiton, only to be told later there was another candidate who had far more experience than she did. "I managed to position it well enough to get in the door," she said. "The best way for selling yourself is to find a way to get in front of them. It's really easy for somebody to shred a bit of paper, it's a lot harder when they've actually met you."
Commonwealth Bank executive manager Malini Raj added that it helps to show you're keen to skill-up in the areas where you fall short. "There is nothing more powerful than showing people you are willing to learn. It's about making sure you are constantly showing people that you want to develop and that if you don't know something, you're able to learn from the other people around you," she said.
Speaking on camera after the event, Tredenick urged women to have more confidence in themselves.
"If you can think through the role and you can see that you truly have a contribution to make and it doesn't align with the selection criteria or it's not even in the selection criteria, give it a go," she said.
"Most men will give it a go, women tend not to. The best advice I can give is to be clear what you are of value for, be confident and put it across."
At least give it a shot. Nobody's perfect after all.
Check out Michelle Tredenick's video interview with Women's Agenda.