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Brave Girls Make Future Champions?

Brave Girls Make Future Champions?

On International Women’s Day the International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN agency comprised of 186 of the 193 UN member states, published a report on the progress women had made globally in employment in the last 20 years.

The report looked at data from 178 countries and found that rate of women’s participation in the workforce was 25.5% lower than men’s participation in 2015 – a gap only 0.6% smaller than 20 years earlier. In total they claim that 6.2% of women are jobless across the world compared to 5.5% of men, and those in employment often have to accept lower quality jobs. Of course this is no indication of women’s overall economic impact across the globe and focuses only only paid employment.

Coincidentally, I was reviewing a TEDtalk by Reshma Saujani on the subject of bravery vs perfection as a modifier of modern parenting goals for girls. Reshma is the founder of the hugely successful Girls Who Code program and her talk resonated with me on a number of levels. She essentially explored the idea that girls are raised to be perfect and boys are raised to take risks. This meshes well with a 2015 report by the Society of Paediatric Psychology authored by Elizabeth E. O’Neal, BA, Jodie M. Plumert, PhD and Carole Peterson, PhD from University of Iowa that looked at conversations between parents and children on injury prevention, following a trip to the emergency department. One of the prime conclusions of the study was that parents were more likely to urge daughters than sons to be “more careful in the future”. These conversations are more prevalent with older than younger children and it prompted me to ask the question, when did we teach our girls to be scared?

Of course this is a huge generalisation, but lower levels of risk taking is clearly a factor in the general female population and it seems to have parental roots. A University of Otago, New Zealand, study in 2011 showed that boys and girls were equally likely to succumb to anxiety up to the age of 11, but by age 15 the statistics show girls 6x more likely to suffer from anxiety than their male peers. I have noticed this in my own extended family where girls brought up to bounce back from skinned knees are more likely to see a tree as a challenge than a source of shade, whereas others who are more sheltered perceive merely the risk of failure as a reason to literally crumble before the task. Whether you perceive the latter behaviour as commendable caution, attention seeking or some other viewpoint, this heightened perception of failure deprives them of the opportunity to succeed, a situation much more rarely encountered in healthy boys. At this point you might well raise the spectre of the 2007/8 financial crash that was generally attributed to ‘boys’ taking ridiculous risks, but lets put that conversation to one side for a moment.

As with adults, anxiety can find its origin in a number of factors from relationship breakups, personal trauma, family fatalities as well as clinical factors. What is clear from various studies is that non clinical anxiety is overwhelmingly learned behaviour from those in loco parentis. Adults often see fear and vulnerability as “cute” factors in girls and weakness in boys, and Hollywood has done its best to embed that attitude in our cultures. Powerful men and vulnerable women are all too evident from movies through celebrity culture to pornography.

Parents and other influencers use praise to condition behaviour, encouraging certain styles of performance and attitudes to fit those they perceive to be society’s requirements for a good safe life. But showering mediocre performance with “good job” plaudits does little to engender the kind of enthusiasm for achievement that leads to risk taking, and causes the recipient to settle and assume success is ordained and not earned.

Carol Dweck first wrote about empty praise as a conditioner of behaviour back in 1999 when she took a cohort of 400 students and looked at the effect of uncorrelated praising as a strategy for high achievement. She cautioned that labelling students as a way of attempting to encourage them regardless of effort was counterproductive:

“Don’t get students so invested in these labels that they care more about keeping the label than about learning. Instead of empowering students, praise is likely to render students passive and dependent on something they believe they can’t control. And it can hook them into a system in which setbacks signify incompetence and effort is recognized as a sign of weakness rather than a key to success.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t praise students.We can praise as much as we please when they learn or do well , but we should wax enthusiastic about their strategies, not about how their performance reveals an attribute they are likely to view as innate and beyond their control.”

Up to US 5th Grade (UK year 6), girls routinely outperform boys academically yet at this stage girls begin to change their attitude to challenges, according to another study by Dweck, with the best academically able girls receding most from new challenges, whilst boys forge ahead. Many parents and teachers know this phenomenon and have attributed it to a lag in maturity between the genders, but that doesn’t go near explaining the phenomenon. At this age boys get far more involved in team sports where competitiveness is an integral part of the activity – they fight for a ball and fight for a position with contact sports dominating. Perhaps it is this sense of physical competitiveness as a attractive attribute for boys and a less attractive attribute for girls that begins to bite.

Saujani in her talk references a quotation that achieved widespread credibility due to its inclusion in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, namely that an internal Hewlett Packard (HP) report had shown that men will apply for internal promotion when they meet just 60% of the stated job criteria but that women only apply when they match 100%. This has led to a whole series of writings and musings on the subject of “the confidence gap”. Sandberg cites as origin for the statistic the article A business case for women, published in The McKinsey Quarterly by Georges Desvaux, Sandrine Devillard-Hoellinger and Mary C. Meany, yet attempts by Curt Rice to track down the story reveal that it is completely anecdotal and likely has no real data to support it as a conclusion.

So if not confidence then where is the gap? Tara Sophia Mohr in HBR 2014 article on the confidence gap carried out a study of a thousand American men and women and concluded that lack of confidence counted for less than 10% of women failing to apply for a role. Both men and women polled over 40% for not wanting to waste their energy on a low probability of success, but the next highest category for women at almost 22% was the reputational risk of failure to secure the job. There are lots of anecdotal claims about women’s business failures being remembered longer than men’s but little in the way of study to support it. What is most clear from Mohr’s analysis is that it is not lack of confidence in their own abilities as much as lack of confidence in the hiring process that holds back applicants – or at least a misunderstanding of how other factors can compensate for qualifications gaps.

Saujani on the other hand takes the HP anecdote to imply that girls are socialised to be overly cautious. This certainly fits better with the injury prevention study cited earlier. She goes on to point out that women are being left behind through cautious behaviour when Mohr asserts that it is a failure to understand how to bridge qualifications gaps. This is a key factor in computing and technology based roles where the job requirements lists can seem impossibly exacting.

So is it a sense of perfection or a fear of repetitional risk that is at work here? My personal experience is that women under pitch for jobs. I have experienced far more women rising well to the challenge of unexpectedly increased responsibility  than men, perhaps because they were poorly positioned in the first place and so nowhere near their current skills limits.

A 2015 study by Ghulam Nabi & Song Wei from the School of Public Affairs, University of Science and Technology of China, showed that “Gender bias is not only due to male dominancy but also that females have more stereotypical perception towards male applicants and (Cole et al., 2004) found in his study on the recruiter evaluation process of the candidates that during the selection process the male recruiter views gender qualification & experiences the same, while a female recruiter showed tilt towards male applicants.” As women are overwhelmingly dominant in HR and recruitment this issue could prove to be decisive. Without an active corporate bias towards female recruitment into senior roles, such a male gender bias could fatally unbalance the gender opportunities at the earliest stage of recruitment – the first filter. I’m not concluding that women are “doing it to themselves” to paraphrase, but that hiring practises should at least be aware of this potential and always call for a balanced slate of applicants if possible. We all have a role to play.

Linda Babcock and Sara Lashever, authors of the book Women Don’t Ask, talk extensively about women’s biggest hold back in the workplace is a failure to negotiate effectively. Number one attribute in negotiation is research and number two is bravery. Research builds a case for mutual employer/employee benefit and bravery keeps the applicant walking down the “ask list” when the “no’s” get returned.  I’m at a loss to understand how this reluctance emerges and I can find no evidence for it, save for the sheer number of “negotiating for women” courses on offer. Certainly teenage girls know the art of negotiating, but they do it from a different standpoint – emotional blackmail rather than balanced benefit!

Women still need to exercise caution in many aspects of their lives, mostly because of the way we bring up boys to have a certain perspective on the role of women. That certainly needs to continue to change, yet is under pressure from religious fundamentalism in all of its guises. Men need to actively challenge other men that attempt to control women’s personal choices, reminding each other which century we are living in and what we collectively gain from a more engaged gender balance. We need to reinforce to our girls that bravery is not a masculine attribute but is engaging and rewarding. Call it Lean in if you must but it’s more about challenging than simply contributing.

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