Over a decade before I had three daughters, I was intrigued by women and how they’re perceived in the business world.
My first encounter with this subject came from one of my sociology classes at Stanford, which focused on status hierarchy dynamics.
The class didn’t just cover theories regarding how people of differing gender, racial, and educational backgrounds were perceived. It was my first (and only) observational class.
Much of our class was spent observing some of our classmates in problem-solving situations (which mimicked professional settings) and watching how the social dynamics played out.
It was the equivalent of sitting behind a one-way mirror (like the kind used for focus groups or police interrogations) and observing our class. My professor would explain a theory of what happens when you put together people of various genders, ethnicities, and social statuses. Then, we’d watch classmates who had not yet been exposed to the theory work on a collaborative project.
Amazing to me at the time, the dynamic that unfolded in front of me matched the theory exactly. I was stunned.
It was back then that I came across research that demonstrated the power of male- versus female-sounding names. There was an experiment with hiring managers who were asked to evaluate a stack of résumés. Researchers found that applicants with male-sounding names were invited to interviews at a far higher rate than those with female-sounding names — even when the résumés were 100% identical other than the name.
This experiment empirically demonstrated gender bias. (As a guy, this was not something I had thought much about until that time).
A decade later, when I had children, I decided to give my girls female-sounding legal first names and male-sounding nicknames.
I figured someone named “Pat” would get more job interviews than “Patricia,” or “Chris” would get more interviews than “Christy,” etc.
Now, if you’re a woman, you’ll have an obvious self-serving interest in this topic. If you’re a man or non-binary, you will undoubtedly work with women in the workplace. You’ll either work with them, for them, or they’ll work for you. They may be customers, partners, or suppliers.
I found it fascinating to hear how my female colleagues at McKinsey dealt with working in male-dominated industries, such as oil and gas or industrial manufacturing.
Here are a few things I’ve observed over the years that have significantly altered how I work with women.
- Women are often socialized to apologize a lot. This was a common problem among women who were first-year consultants at McKinsey. It was quite common for them to get the following feedback: “Stop apologizing when you did nothing wrong!”
- Women often under-perceive their own abilities compared to men. In many male-dominated corporate cultures, one factor that’s used to determine who gets the stretch assignment, the key account, or the promotion is how confident the candidate sounds regarding their abilities.
I think this goes back to elementary school recess where boy bravado was rewarded and being quiet was not. Boys learn to talk big. Girls get penalized for doing so… and then sometimes continue the habit.
When I evaluate men and women for a particular position, project, or opportunity, I now largely ignore how confident they sound about their capabilities. Instead, I focus on their empirical track record of results in the area in question. I will select a woman with a stellar empirical track record who’s openly nervous and unsure of her ability to tackle something a step or two outside her comfort zone over a confident-sounding man with a track record that’s far more modest than it is portrayed.
The only time I will consider a candidate’s confidence in their abilities is for a spokesperson type of role… a role where how you say something matters a lot in terms of desired outcomes. Otherwise, I go with the track record.
[Incidentally, when I do interviews in industry, I typically ask close to 30 to 40 questions per hour of interview. I ask a lot of questions where I expect a one-word answer. I tell my candidates this in advance. Instead of asking a question like, “Tell me about your last job,” I ask 15 very short questions about their last job.
“How many direct reports did you have?” “How many years did you work in the role?” “What was your quota?” “Of the last five years on the job, how many did you meet or exceed quota?” “Of your current ten-person team, how many did you inherit when you joined?” “How many did you personally hire?” “How many did you hire who subsequently left?” “How many left because you fired them for poor performance?” “How many left voluntarily that you had wanted to stay?”
If someone says “We did X” or “We did Y.” I ask, “Who is ‘we’?” “What was your specific role?” “What was the role of person Z?”]
Women tend to respond better to encouragement than harsh criticism. Most men do too, but men tend to be more used to being spoken to harshly. I learned this one from my little league softball coach training. Don’t tell girl athletes what they did wrong. Tell them what you want them to do differently next time.
In contrast, I got yelled at a lot on my high school football team for what I did wrong. Today, we might call that toxic masculinity. Back then, we called it winning a state championship… which we did. Was the yelling really necessary? Probably not. Were we used to being yelled at? Hell yes.
Women tend to allow others to speak, whereas men will far more often interrupt others who are speaking. I saw this a lot while sitting in on classes at Harvard Business School. This issue comes up a lot during the office hours with my Inner Circle members.
If you’re running a meeting, and you want to get the most value out of the room, here’s what you do. Don’t let the ideas of the person who’s good at interrupting others drive the decision-making. If you want to know what the women in the room think, ask them. I know several women who built alliances with other women in their companies. They would ask each other questions in the meeting (even though they already knew the answer) to help hand the microphone to another woman.
If you’re a man running a meeting, explicitly ask women for their opinions. You’ll get a lot more collective insight out of the people in the room. If you see a woman get interrupted by someone else, intervene and say “Wait a minute… I want to hear what Mary has to say. Mary, please finish your thought.” It is far easier for anybody else to help keep the microphone in the hands of a particular woman than it is for the woman to keep the microphone herself. If a guy does that, he’s seen as a leader. If a woman keeps the microphone, she’s not perceived the same way. Is this fair? No. Is it quite common? Yes.
- Men and women often have different default ways of doing things. If you’re used to one way of doing things (like the “male” way), it’s easy to think any other way is somehow “wrong.” With some perspective, and after spending many of my years encountering diverse cultures (geographically, ethnically, corporately, and otherwise), I now see things in a different light. I resist the default temptation to categorize a way of doing things as “right” versus “wrong,” and instead, I think in terms of “effective” or “ineffective.”
If someone does something using an approach that’s different from the most common way, I step back and ask myself, “Are they effective?” If so, that’s all that matters. I’ve come to appreciate there’s more than one way to be right.
- It tends to be harder for women to overcome less-than-welcoming environments without the support of those in power. Since men have historically been in positions of power, this means that men who are aware of the gender dynamic can be great allies for women. Women can also be great allies for women. This has nothing to do with favoring women. It has everything to do with enabling women to contribute.
There are many social policy reasons why we should do some of these things. It’s good to be inclusive. It’s good to provide equal opportunity.
These reasons are all good and valid.
But there’s another reason to do these things too…
It’s far more profitable to do so.
Men (and women) in positions of power will achieve more by getting the most out of everybody in the room — including the women.
In the United States, women make a disproportionate amount of household purchasing decisions. Yet a tiny fraction of Fortune 500 boards have women.
Fortune 500 companies with at least one female board member financially outperform those with only male board members.
Women can sometimes see things that men don’t. (And men can sometimes see things that women don’t)… But there’s no shortage of the male perspective. The same cannot be said for the female perspective, especially at the C-level and board level.
I hope all of you remember this when my daughters enter the workforce in a few years. I would very much like the world to be a different place than it has been historically. Meanwhile, I go where the data tells me to go. So if you happen to get their résumés, don’t be surprised if your assumption of their gender is incorrect.
What do you think about this topic? Comment below to let me know.
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