Women are not raised to be brave. We are taught to play it safe, avoid risk and failure, and strive for perfection. From childhood, we’re told to be good little girls, to behave like a lady, to defer to the boys, to secure approval by pleasing the grownups, and to not be bossy, outspoken, pushy, self-aggrandizing, or disruptive.
Men are taught to take risk after risk, play hard, and if they fail, to dust themselves off and plunge ahead. Behaviors such as fighting, yelling, shoving, interrupting, or competing fiercely are permitted and even approved of.
This kind of gender stereotyping is nowhere more pervasive than in the business world.
Professional achievement and all the traits associated with it get placed in the male column. If a man focuses on his career and taking a calculated approach to amassing power, he is living up to society’s stereotypical expectations of men. If a woman behaves in the exact same manner, she has violated stereotypical expectations of women. This bias is at the core of why women are held back by men and why women hold themselves back.
It is a massive understatement to say that women and men are not having the same experiences at work. Women are underrepresented at every level in the corporate pipeline. They are less likely than men to be hired, paid the same wage, or promoted. In one study, when presented with identical resumes — with one submitted by “John” and the other by “Jennifer” — science professors regarded the male applicant as a more competent, significantly better hire than the female applicant, offered John a salary more than $4,000 higher, and were ready to provide greater career mentoring to John than to Jennifer.
The problem is clear: Women will never advance in business until we break through these stereotypes. Women need to learn to take risks, withstand disapproval and criticism, survive failure, seize opportunities, and understand that perfection is never required. And we must do all of this under the disapproving glare of the men.
This is a tough assignment but we must stop limiting ourselves and move forward bravely. Here are some actions women can take to reverse this trend and advance their careers:
- Be brave and take risks. Remake yourself to exude confidence.
- Reach for opportunities. Opportunities are rarely handed to you on a plate—you have to reach out and seize them. Take risks and advocate for yourself. Take the hard job even if it’s a stretch for you. If you don’t, some guy will, even if it’s just as hard a stretch for him. Put yourself forward. When you get your hands on a project, dive into it, take charge, and offer your opinion as freely as any man would.
- Learn how to recover from mistakes. Shake off mistakes and move on. Men do. They also have far better mechanisms for blaming external factors (e.g., “The deadline was ridiculous”) or finding a reassuring personal excuse (“I got hit with another assignment just as I was about to turn to this.’) Women obsess about perfection and agonize over mistakes. If a woman makes a presentation to twenty people, and nineteen of them tell her it was terrific, but one tells her he thought it was mediocre, she’ll dwell on that one person’s comment. Perfection is unachievable. Learn from your mistakes and move on.
- Remember your body language matters. Make your physical presence known. Use the strategies that men already use: lean forward at the table, point to the person you’ve chosen to acknowledge for a comment. Stand up and walk to the front of the room, put the flats of your hands on the table to make a point and you look someone squarely in the eye—whatever it takes. These high-power poses make you appear more authoritative and confident Men tend to interrupt women more often when we lean away, smile, or don’t look at the person we are speaking to.
- Stop nodding and agreeing. When a woman nods, she simply means, “Go on, I’m listening.” But a man will interpret a nod as agreement with whatever point he’s making. Similarly, when a man mentions something he knows, it’s a bid to establish his status. In response, a woman will acknowledge the man’s point, thinking that she will, in turn, be expected to share, and that a connection will be made. Not so. The man takes her agreement as submission to his higher status. Take note of your congenial nature — women’s habits of politeness and social facilitation are misconstrued as supporting male dominance. Instead of nodding your head, be ready to challenge and question.
- If you don’t ask, you don’t get. This is critical. How will you ever reach your goals if you quietly perform only those assignments you are handed? Ask for what you want.
Outmoded gender roles have kept women from achieving their full potential for years. Now we must proactively seize every opportunity to demonstrate our value in society and change the way women are treated.[…]
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