I recently gave a talk as part of Meltwater’s Women in Tech initiative at our Shack 15 data science hub in Shoreditch.
I asked a group of Meltwater female managers and aspiring managers what positive stereotypes we tend to associate with women in business.
“Empathy!” was the immediate response. After a bit of consideration this was followed by “multi-tasking.”
I then asked the group to call out some of the negative stereotypes that we associate with women.
“Emotional” was the resounding answer. Then “being indecisive” and “lack of confidence.”
It’s depressing how predictable this exercise is.
As women our typical strong points tend to be those associated with motherhood: caring for people and juggling lots of things at once. We’re great at baking cakes while watching children and possibly doing some light paid work at the same time.
Our “negatives” paint a picture of someone who would be atrocious in a leadership position. A hysterical woman who’s not sure what to do because she doesn’t believe in herself – not exactly what’s required to rally the troops.
Most gender stereotypes are unfounded if you look at research. A recent HBR study actually found that women score higher than men in most leadership skills, and are generally seen as more effective in organisations than their male counterparts.
But one of the negative stereotypes I mentioned above is, sadly, a problem.
It is accurate, it is pervasive, and it is undermining years and years of hard work by women globally as they try to further their careers. It is partly why women are so poorly represented on company boards, and partly why we are paid so much less than men.
Women are emotional
Nope, not this one.
After 10 years in a management capacity at Meltwater – where I have led and mentored dozens of entry-level and mid-level salespeople across three continents – my experience has been that men are just as emotional as women. Of course we all express ourselves differently, but I have seen no evidence that the men on my teams feel the highs and lows of the sales game less deeply than the women.
I don’t have studies to back up my observations, but anyone who has lived with or worked closely with someone of the male gender must agree that men feel things strongly too, and that all of us sometimes share these feelings in a way that is not entirely constructive.
This stereotype I reject.
Women are indecisive
This is questionable.
Here are some other words for “indecisive:”
- Seeing the strengths and weaknesses of both sides of an argument
- Being ready to admit when the path is unclear
- Being humble
It’s an interesting one.
There are some times in business when a decision needs to be made, and the decision needs to be communicated convincingly so that the team feels they are in safe hands. It can be comforting to be told that there is only one obvious solution to a problem, whether or not this is actually the truth. Sometimes we just need to act, get the team on board, and hope for the best.
There are however situations where a more measured, cautious approach can lead to better decision-making outcomes. Consider the great strategist Angela Merkel, who is celebrated for her genius in finding solutions that keep everyone happy. To understand and sympathise with both sides of an argument is very often a strength, though this way of doing things may not seem as “decisive” as a top-down, “my way or the highway” approach (Theresa May tried the latter and it didn’t work out well for her).
So although data suggests that women are indeed less top-down than men, describing the way women approach leadership with a negative word like “indecisive” is I feel misleading. Let’s just say that women can sometimes be more measured in their decision-making than men, and that can be a very good thing depending on the situation.
Women are unconfident
This is the one that is true. Ouch.
Check out this graph from the study I mentioned earlier:
I find this fascinating. Researchers found that women from the ages of 25 to 45 consistently underrate their own abilities (interestingly, they also found that men in this age group tend to overestimate what they are capable of!)
There are some good things that come of this: women tend to be more receptive to feedback and focus more on personal development, and actually by the time we reach our late forties our “slow and steady wins the race” approach starts paying off and we become more confident than men.
But what kills me is that it takes us 20 years to get there.
That’s 20 years of women not asking for promotions because they are afraid they are not qualified – when, according to the HBR study, men with the exact same credentials typically take the plunge and assume they can learn what they are missing on the job.
That’s 20 years of women then having less responsibility than they could handle, being paid less than they should be, and 20 years of women not serving as role models to help fend off the unconscious bias that naturally occurs when the majority of a company’s senior management are men.
Taking a leap of faith
When I was 26, I asked my manager John whether I could transfer from Boston to Buenos Aires and run Meltwater’s Latin American operations. I barely spoke Spanish and certainly wasn’t qualified to start wading through the bureaucratic nightmare that awaited me – but what resulted was one of the most important, interesting and successful periods of my life.
Once I’d got a handle on Argentinian tax and business law, I restructured our business and increased our profitability by 20%. I recruited an all-star sales team and increased our revenue by 48%. And along the way I got to travel, to fall in love with a new culture, and to develop some incredibly inspiring friendships that still shape the way I see the world today.
I was admittedly very lucky to work for a company that takes chances on people and didn’t ask twice when I said I knew I could do it.
Meltwater continues to take leaps of faith in me – these days as the company’s EMEA director for Fairhair.ai, I regularly address data scientists and investment bankers who I’m very aware know a lot more about their subject matter than I do, and I constantly need to learn as I go.
It is challenging and sometimes a bit scary, but I’ve never once regretted throwing my hat in the ring for positions that I know will stretch me.
The confidence thing
But even though I have a couple of war stories that sound good on paper, I’m not impervious to the confidence thing.
In fact I feel its oppressive influence every day. I fit right into that graph. In my mid-thirties I’m constantly questioning myself, even though I know I shouldn’t.
My boss Leor (Meltwater’s only female executive director, and a fantastic role model for women in business) tells me I need to sound more self-assured in meetings, and I’m sure she’s right.
But it’s not that easy to just be more confident because you know you should be.
The real problem
The real problem is that we women (or at least, those of us represented by the graph) are being illogical. The data says that women have no reason to be so self-critical, and yet we are. And we make decisions – not about business, but about ourselves – that are irrational.
This is a flaw, and it’s an area where statistically we genuinely make worse decisions than men do.
At the end of the day, we can’t do much about stereotypes or unconscious bias, or the thousands of years of history that produced them.
But perhaps we can try to do something about the confidence thing.
Women in tech: let’s make sure that we are kind to each other as a starting point. Let’s call each other out when we see unreasonable self-deprecation, and encourage each other to take the same risks that men do. Let’s remind each other that we are statistically likely to underrate our own abilities, and that data also shows us that this instinct is not based in reason.
Women are underrepresented in tech, and we are even more underrepresented in AI (a problem that is not getting any better). We need to try to do something about this if we can.
So the next time you see an opportunity that you want but feel you may not be qualified for, try to override your instinct and go for it. Do it for yourself, and do it for the rest of us women in tech. Role models are the best possible antidote to unconscious bias. That is how we will solve the “women in tech problem:” a series of leaps of faith that inspire belief not only in our gender but in ourselves.
It is the logical way to solve this problem.
This article was originally published on July 23.