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Opinion Week 23

Are Women Risk-Averse? Yes. And Maybe They Should Be.

Women are judged more harshly when they fail at work, and they know it. Is that a "confidence gap" or acknowledging reality?

This week Working Mother came out with a report about women’s advancement in corporate America. It’s a good read, with clear and actionable recommendations. But for me, it missed the mark. 

Based on both survey and focus group data with over 3,000 professionals, Working Mother identifies four key gaps limiting women’s ability to move up the corporate ladder, including:

  • Awareness/knowledge by women of what’s needed to move up and what opportunities exist

  • Ability to build relationship capital

  • Confidence in oneself and willingness to take risks

  • Corporate cultures that “walk the talk” of accountability in creating opportunities for women

These gaps are real, and the report is detailed and specific about how to address them. But there’s not a lot of talk about the underlying social conditions that might make what looks like a “gap” (not aspiring to a CEO role, for example) more of a practical response to reality.

For example, the report talks about an aspiration gap between men and women. But it doesn’t touch on why that might be so. In particular, it didn’t talk about how women’s past experience of bias might cause them to scale back their ambitions. 

The same goes for women’s so-called lack of confidence and risk aversion. There’s solid evidence that women are judged more harshly for making mistakes at work. Black women face even more dire consequences for errors, due to their “double jeopardy” status. (despite this, black women self-report much more ambition than white women in both this study and the McKinsey /LeanIn.org annual Women in the Workplace report.)

Should everyone aspire to be CEO? Not if you think, with good reason, that you are extremely unlikely to get there. Role models do help, but they don't fix all ills, especially if the underlying promotion processes are subjective and susceptible to bias. It also might be that women are more realistic in judging their skills and talents than men are. We know that men often overestimate their own competence, as Dr. Camorro-Premuzic among others has pointed out. The “aspiration gap” might actually be an “over-confidence gap.” 

Should women be encouraged to take more professional risks if they are going to be judged more harshly if they fail? Only if the company is not going to punish more harshly if they fail. Without acknowledging the underlying dynamic, it's difficult to craft a solution that will actually work...and that women will trust.

Without context, it’s easy to fall into a “fix the women” mentality. But women are often behaving rationally when they don't aspire to be CEO, or decline to take a risk.

Until companies figure out how to equalize the downside of failure, women will hang back. Not because they lack ambition, or desire, or role models. But because they can imagine the consequences all too clearly.

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