Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Women in Leadership: It’s Not Just About Confidence


In her 2014 eye-opening article for the Harvard Business Review, author Tara Sophia Mohr discussed Why Women Don’t Apply for Jobs Unless They’re 100% Qualified:

You’ve probably heard the following statistic: Men apply for a job when they meet only 60% of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100% of them. The finding comes from a Hewlett Packard internal report, and has been quoted in Lean In, The Confidence Code, and dozens of articles. It’s usually invoked as evidence that women need more confidence. As one Forbes article put it, “Men are confident about their ability at 60%, but women don’t feel confident until they’ve checked off each item on the list.” The advice: women need to have more faith in themselves.

Fortunately, Mohr was skeptical of these findings and decided to survey over a thousand men and women, predominantly American professionals. She asked them, “If you decided not to apply for a job because you didn’t meet all the qualifications, why didn’t you apply?” She discovered that the barrier to applying was not lack of confidence, at least according to the self-reporting of the respondents. In fact, according to the table below, “I didn’t think I could do the job well” was the least common of all the responses for both men and women.


Although it is certainly true that many of us could use an extra dose of confidence, if we listened only to the advice from the Lean In/Confidence Code bull horn, we would be doing ourselves a great disservice. We would be internalizing and personalizing the problem, putting all the weight of this dilemma on our own shoulders (sound familiar?), and assuming that the external environment, the world out there, was a level playing field. The bottom line is that there is more to it than just confidence (internal), and this missing societal component (external) is fundamentally important.


He’s Skilled, She’s Lucky

According to their 2014 ground-breaking book, What Works for Women at Work: Four Patterns Working Women Need to Know, authors Joan Williams and Rachel Dempsey tell us that women need to prove themselves over and over, where a similarly situated male colleague does not. In an article for Gender News, author Adrienne Rose Johnson writes,

“Men are often judged on their potential, but women are judged on their achievements,” Williams explains, adding that women have to provide more evidence of competence to be considered as competent as their male colleagues. What's more, “women’s mistakes tend to be noticed more and remembered longer, but women’s successes tend to be attributed to luck.” Williams calls this pattern “prove it again.” Women literally need to prove themselves over and over again, where a similarly situated male colleague does not, she explains. The obvious solution to this problem would be for women to engage in serious self-promotion, by broadcasting their accomplishments and minimizing their faults. But, says Williams, self-promotion has its pitfalls. No one likes a braggart, especially if she is a woman. Instead, coworkers expect women to be modest and community-minded.

The Posse Solution

Fortunately, Williams and Dempsey don’t just leave us hanging, but rather, offer us a possible way out of this societal dilemma – the posse. The posse is a group of people that agree to celebrate each other’s successes. Again, author Adrienne Rose Johnson writes,

 “Women are supposed to be modest,” Williams says, but “the posse allows you to do something very appropriate—to celebrate someone else’s successes. Meanwhile, of course, though, they are celebrating yours.” So, rather than Sally sending a company-wide e-mail to announce her own achievement, a posse member, Rhonda, sends  a company-wide email announcing Sally’s achievement. Williams shows that “the posse works because it takes traditionally feminine behavior—being selfless and communal—and uses it to soften [self-promoting] behavior that might be seen as too masculine otherwise.”
Walking the Tightrope

Schemas are hypotheses or stereotypes that we all use as a shortcut to interpret social events. Since the highest levels of all prestigious professions are occupied primarily by men, a professional woman operates within a perceived discord between two schemas: female and professional, which is perceived by society as male (see Valian’s Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women).  A man’s success matches the masculine schema, so it is easy for him to take credit and it is easy for all of us (society) to give him credit. A women’s success also matches the masculine schema, so either she views herself as having masculine traits or as having succeeded by luck or extraordinary effort. Relative to men, women see luck as more important for both success and failure. Women walk a line between being liked but not respected—or respected but not liked. Women cannot be viewed as too feminine or masculine because this increases the schema mismatch. Adrienne Rose Johnson writes,

An example of how women experience the tightrope is “office housework,” meaning the important work that keeps an office running but that does not advance one’s career. Often these tasks default to women, who are expected to do the housework to be liked. But, if they do too much, they do not get their “real” job done, and they lose respect. As a solution, Williams suggests using a strategic “No.” Women can say “Yes” to one or two pieces of office housework, then say “No” and provide alternatives for the rest. By agreeing to some office housework, a woman demonstrates her commitment to the team. And by saying “No” in a way that offers a solution, she is still showing her commitment to the team but putting her foot down just enough to allow time to get to the rest of her important work.

Summing Up

This topic has come up at least three times in the past few months, but only the confidence side of the problem. The latest was during a Women in Business Leadership workshop at UNC. In each incidence, I opened up the PowerPoint for a talk I have given several times called, “Hidden Obstacles to Success: Unconscious Bias, Stereotype Threat, and Impostor Syndrome.” That’s where I had laid out these arguments. It is very important to know both the internal (confidence) and external (societal double standard) components of this issue so we can decide how we want to react to a particular situation. When we hear the advice, “pick your battles,” this is the information we need to make the right choice.


PS The WIB Leadership workshop was awesome, and I hope to write more about it if I can block out a bit of time and muster the required creative energy!