The #1 Thing Holding Women Back in Business

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In my consulting practice, half of my clients are women. This is very unusual as the industry standard is about 10%. I've had the great privilege of working with some of the most talented women in their fields.

The fascinating thing I've noticed over the last several years is the role self-perception plays in all of them. With ZERO exceptions, all of them have a voice in their head that says, "You can't do that," "Oh, that's too much for me," etc… The best of them acknowledge the voice and do it anyway, but they all have it.

What I've noticed is how often the voice is objectively wrong (assuming I'm actually objective here).

This is one half of the picture that I've noticed for a long time.

The other half comes from raising three wonderful daughters -- all under 9 years of age. It has been a delight and joy to watch them grow into little girls, and soon into young women. What has surprised me by the experience is how enormously strong an influence culture and gender expectations play in their lives.

We don't let our girls watch TV (except musical performances or sports like the Olympics). They see very few movies. They don't get any of the teen magazines (that are in my opinion atrocious). In short, we've done our best to deliberately shield them from distorted body images, women as objects or accessories to men, and countless other implied messages which drive me crazy.

… And it hasn't worked!

My three-year-old still wants to be a princess. (Honey, be an astronaut, not a princess.)

My 9-year-old thinks she's fat (she's stronger than boys 2 years older than she is, and equates muscles with being too big), and wants to wear make-up to look "beautiful."

This of course drives me absolutely crazy -- though I don't use those words with them.

It takes a daily effort to attempt to counter those messages. It's okay to be a princess, but no princess daughter of mine is going to wait around to be rescued by some prince. "Yes DAD… we know, princesses need to solve their own problems and not wait to be rescued."

By the way, Disney hates me.

I know I'm having some influence, but I'm surprised at how much influence the rest of the world has on them. Every night I feel the need to de-program them from what they picked up from the rest of the world. Many days, I feel like I'm losing the battle, but I keep trying anyway.

On the one hand, I'm very much raising my girls to be future leaders of something, and on the other, I work with women 50+ years old who are already leaders in their fields.

I'm surprised how often the same issues come up in conversations with both audiences.

One of the big issues, probably THE biggest issue that I see in both my women clients and my girls, is what I call the Ability vs. Self-Perception Gap.

When a woman sees her own abilities as less capable than I see it as an outsider sees it, I call this a gap between their self-perception vs. their actual abilities.

Amongst the women I know, and much to my disappointment, all of them have had this ability vs. self-perception gap. There have been ZERO exceptions to this trend.

When we think less of our abilities than our actual abilities warrant, we tend to take on less ambitious projects. We don't stretch ourselves on projects that are slightly out of reach of our actual abilities.

In business and in life, growth in skills comes from being slightly in over your head. These "stretch" projects force you to grow your skills in real time to succeed.

By the way, this is how General Electric produces Fortune 500 CEOs. They rotate their executives into new jobs, in new industries, in new functional areas every 2 - 3 years. It drives the executives crazy because they're never 100% competent at their new jobs. The CFO becomes head of Sales. The head of Sales in the U.S. becomes country manager for Turkey. The expert in the aviation industry now works with plastics.

This is how you groom superstar CEOs.

HOWEVER, when you think less of your abilities than your actual abilities warrant, you risk not nominating yourself for these opportunities. Specifically, you risk not expressing confidence to your boss (often men) that you can rise to the challenge.

When it comes to tackling a tough project, a lot of men -- and probably a lot of women too -- (in the US, I'm not sure about elsewhere) use a meta data decision-making process.

A data driven decision-making process would be one where we look at factual data about the possible candidates to lead a project, and pick the one with the strongest set of "factual" skills. A meta data decision-making process is one where the decision is based in part on how confident you seem and appear about a project.

If you're in fact very talented, but in demeanor nervous -- to many decisions makers whose own careers will be based on the success or failure of your project -- you will make them nervous and will not get chosen for the opportunity.

On the one hand, who could blame them?

When you ask the surgeon who's about to cut into your body, "Do you think I'll live?" and the surgeon, says, "Ehh… I dunno… I kinda, sorta, maybe hope so."

This isn't what you want to hear!

Male or female, I like my surgeons CONFIDENT. This is totally meta.

If I were going strictly off data, I would look at the survival rate of each surgeon's track record and look at the average difficulty level of those surgeries (and possibly segment the data to look at survival rates by difficulty tier).

Maybe the one that doesn't sound confident is a woman with a 99% patient survival rate. Perhaps my case is the toughest one she's seen in her career and at best, it's a 60% chance of survival. Perhaps her uncertainty comes from the fact that she's a perfectionist and trying to be conservative.

Meanwhile, there's a male surgeon that says, "Yes, I'm very confident you will live." In my anxiety, I feel SO much better. But perhaps I didn't look closely to see that his patient survival rate is only 90%.

Is this fair?

Probably not.

Does it happen?

ABSOLUTELY.

Now you could argue that there is gender bias at work here. And there probably is. And you could argue there is some structural societal issue at hand here. And again, there probably is that too.

But as I'm writing this at 5:00am at the dining room table before my kids wake up, I don't have the energy to tackle "save the world" projects. I focus primarily on what is ACTIONABLE and within one's LOCUS OF CONTROL.

And the nuanced reality to appreciate is that decision makers of all types make decisions based on both data and meta data.

In short, you get picked (or not picked) for choice projects based on your track record AND how you project how you FEEL about your track record.

I have yet to meet even one woman in my business career whose confidence level exceeded her abilities. NOT EVEN ONE! (This is especially true amongst high achievers.)

While I'm only one person, that's still a lot of data points.

My conclusion is this:

Women are chronic UNDER-ESTIMATORS of their own abilities… the trend is RAMPANT.

My oldest daughter started exhibiting this trend when she was about 7 years old.

I work HARD to try and fight this tendency in her every day. It is by no means assured that I will win this battle of perceptions (where my perception of her as an amazingly talented little girl will supersede her self-perceived view that she's fatally flawed and not as capable as she really is).

She came home one day and announced that only boys can be smart. I'm like, "Whoa…. Whoa… wait a minute. Who told you that?"

(My actual reaction was more like "WTF!?!," but of course I didn't say that out loud).

Do you want to know her answer?

It's heartbreaking.

In response to the question, "Who told you only boys can be smart?"

Her answer was, "Nobody."

That means the message was implicit from "everybody."

Everybody is a tough enemy to fight, don't you think?

In contrast, boys (and men) are often told they can do anything in life. Once again, "nobody" tells them this, which basically means "everybody" tells them this.

Interestingly, I find a certain percentage of men have confidence significantly in excess of their objective talents. You and I know this as arrogance. This doesn't apply to all men, but probably 10% - 20% of the ones I've come across.

Now when one under-perceives or over-perceives one's abilities, quite often both are a result of self esteem challenges.

[For more on this topic Click Here]

Some men will err on overestimating their own abilities, and women will almost always underestimate. The difference is when it comes to men, the overestimating of their own abilities can be seen in a positive light by male decisions makers, whereas a lack of confidence is seen as a negative by both men and women decision makers.

Now I'm massively over-generalizing here. Eventually the over-confident (usually male) person's track record gets reconciled against his demeanor (e.g., the smart CEOs figure this out)… but sometimes not for a while. This dynamic can persist for some time.

If you take the overly confident man, he's got a better chance to get a top project than the under-confident woman. He then gets the project, struggles with it, but eventually stretches his skills to the point where his actual ability is pretty close to his original self-perception. (Of course by now, his self-perception has grown even more, but that's a separate issue).

Meanwhile, the under-confident woman gets left behind.

Is this fair?

Of course not.

Does it happen?

ABSOLUTELY.

Nobody said life is fair. The key is to focus on what YOU can do about it that's within your sphere of control.

If you're a woman, here's my question to you:

Does anything I've said resonate with you?

If you have a negative self-perception bias, it's VITAL that you be aware of it.

Although I'm not a woman, I too have had a negative self-perception bias for DECADES. I've only more recently become aware of it and I'm close to putting it behind me entirely.

The reason you want to be aware of the bias is so you can compensate for it.

For example, I've historically routinely underestimated my abilities by about 50%. If others think I have a skill level 10 in an area, I historically, routinely think I have a skill level 5. This started when I was recruiting with consulting firms. I was hoping I could barely eek out a single offer from any Top 10 firm. I had no idea I'd sweep and get offers from nearly all of the Top 10 firms.

At McKinsey, I was hoping to just not get fired after two years. The thought had never even occurred to me that I could even conceivably be in the top 10% globally at McKinsey. I mean come on, it's McKinsey after all, right?

At every step, I've massively underestimated myself and though publicly my career seems like it has been pretty good (and it very much has), to be totally candid with you, I was too afraid to tackle the really HUGE challenges and opportunities.

I was so afraid that I didn't even allow myself to consider the decision explicitly; I just implicitly assumed it wasn't within my abilities and didn't even think about it.

During the last few years, I started to become aware of this bias in my own self perception and started adding an adjustment factor.

I just put a 2x multiplier on any self-assessment of mine.

In short, anytime I'm debating whether or not I'm capable enough to tackle a specific challenge, I'll do the following:

If my thinking is borderline… "Hmm, maybe I could do it… well, maybe not…. it's kind of iffy," I will remember my self-assessment bias and adjust for it. So any time a decision is borderline, I now tell myself with my adjustment factors that it's a no brainer. I can definitely do it (or figure it out along the way) and my abilities are a non-issue.

If you have a negatively biased self-perception, whether you are male or female, it's important you are aware of it and adjust for it.

Otherwise, you lose out on some "stretch" projects that become vital to long-term career growth.

Today, I work for myself so I am my own boss. You'd think this would solve all the problems, as there is no boss to have to worry about. The problem is in fact worse! Sure, I get assigned to 100% of the projects I'm considering, but because of my own biases, I often don't even consider projects I should be considering!

To compensate, I am routinely FORCING myself to take on projects that intimidate me a little, projects that I perceive that I am only 75% qualified for. These are my own "stretch" projects -- projects that stretch both my skills and self-perceptions.

If you have a negatively biased self-perception, it's important you use some similar process to adjust for your biases. You want to put yourself into the flow of challenging "stretch" projects. ALL of my growth, in both my personal life and career, has come from attempting to do things I didn't initially think I could do.

Early in my career, I got drafted and had no choice -- but thankfully did rise to the occasion.

More recently, I'm making a conscious effort to stretch myself. Many things I attempted, especially as a entrepreneur, have failed, but often I learned the most from those and came back for a second or third attempt years later -- much more skilled and ultimately more successful.

The key is to realize these opportunities are important, and not to let a self-perception bias prevent you from considering them.

If you're a man that also has a negative self-perception bias, ALL of the above applies to you too.

If you're a man leading or managing women, it's very useful to be aware of the dynamic above. There are many women in my business and personal life that I trust much more than a man for their specific areas of expertise. I've come to this conclusion based on a DIRECT detailed knowledge of their work, talent and skills.

However, if I only paid attention to the confidence level (and often lack of it) that these women conveyed about their own talents, I would have never reached that same conclusion.

When you're a man leading and collaborating with women, I find it useful to be more data driven and less meta data driven in making people decisions about women. You'll make more accurate personnel decisions and get more results out of your team.

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56 comments… add one
  • Aja May 15, 2013, 12:32 pm

    This is a well-written, thoughtful, and provoking article. As a woman and a high-achiever, I resonate with just about everything you have written. Thank you for sharing your insight and giving me some things to think about…

  • Harsharan Grover May 15, 2013, 12:37 pm

    Hi Victor, having read many articles and books on gender inequality and women in leadership roles, I must compliment you for highlighting a very fresh and realistic perspective on this issue. One small suggestion: can you please make it easier to share your articles on facebook, linkedin through an option on your webpage.

    • Cari Moore May 15, 2013, 1:04 pm

      I agree with Harsharan. I am a case interview subscriber, as well as a subscriber to your Strategic Outlier Letter, and I resonate strongly with your writing. I would love to be able to share your insightful articles on social media websites!

      • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 2:17 am

        Harsharan & Cari,

        Thanks for the suggestion. We’ll get this working in a few days.

        Victor

  • Sarah May 15, 2013, 12:39 pm

    Hi Victor,

    What an interesting article! In fact, I couldn’t agree more. Only, I have to admit that my experience with the consulting sector (in particular McK) didn’t exactly make things better. I went the best schools with amazing results, have a PhD and solid work experience – yet when I did a placement with McK, I was almost thrown off by a single comment (sure enough many other would follow) uttered during training. I didn’t stay out late the night before, so another consultant greeted me (and another female colleague) in the morning by asking whether we had gotten sufficient beauty sleep last night to look pretty enough to please his eyes after all he had “high standards”. It felt like a slap in the face, and I encountered comments like this time and time again during the placement.

    Of course, the only thing to do is to grow a thick skin. Yet if you do just that, you’re immediately criticised for being “one of those young and almost too aspiring women”. So which way is it going to be? It’s one thing to recognise that I might actually be able to do more than I give myself credit for – but with feedback like this, it’s not an easy task to remain confident and make a name for yourself in the consulting industry. My experience has to 80% contributed to the fact that I chose not to work for McK after the placement, and I’ve become very skeptical of the industry overall.

    I’d appreciate your thoughts!

    Regards,
    Sarah

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 2:30 am

      Sarah,

      It’s unfortunate that person made such a comment. It really is very insulting. As much as this topic interest me, I’m still an observer and never a recipient of comments like the one you received. So for me, it’s a bit theoretical.

      If you let the comment pass without saying anything, than you end up reinforcing it. If you violently object, you risk getting demonized as not being able to take a joke. I would be tempted to throw the comment back in the person’s face in a joking tone. “So how did YOU sleep? Because you know what I got standards too and right now you’re looking too good.”

      I probably wouldn’t be fast enough on my feet to say something like that, and yes it’s immature (but he started it!), and I did say I’d be tempted to say it, not that I actually would.

      Now that I think about it, the professional move would have been to pull the person aside, and say you know your comment about beauty sleep offended me. I studied at xyz university, I have X publications, given Y presentations, did A, B, and C and you know what I think I’ve earned the right to be respected for my intellect and not just as some object for you to look at.

      You don’t have to be mean or vindictive about it (though it sure is tempting!), but I think it is worth saying something if for no other reason so that you don’t feel like dirt for letting it slide.

      There is a differenc between someone offending you vs someone offending you and you accepting it. I have found when I’ve done the latter, I’ve regretted it.

      Even as an analyst, I’ve held a partner accountable for an offensive remark made to a fellow analyst – that partner made a joke that went to far. He ackowledged it, thanked me for brining it to his attention, and ended up apologizing to the analyst for his remark. Afterwards, all three of us were able to work together very effectively as the damage had been repaired in the moment without lingering resentment of any type.

      Victor

  • Grace Tong May 15, 2013, 1:03 pm

    Very insightful article Victor- I think you are spot on with this rampant trend among women. However, it is also pretty intriguing to me that the percentage of women with this self-perception gap problem is exceptionally high among female overachievers. So is it likely that the self-underestimation actually helps them to stay modest and work hard to get to the top while those women who tend to overestimate their abilities stagnate halfway in their career?

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 2:34 am

      Grace,

      I’m not sure why it happens. I know for men and women who strive for perfection they by definition hold themselves to a standard set by someone else. Since by definition nobody is perfect, those who seek it will always be disappointed and find themselves falling short as “less than perfect”.

      So I think the perfectionism drive is correlated with this self perception.

      This is also why I advocate the pursuit of excellence instead of perfection. Excellence is about striving to achieve your personal best. It is an internal standard that is within ones control.

      Victor

  • Ester May 15, 2013, 1:07 pm

    Victor-
    I enjoyed reading the article very much and agree with every word. As a woman in consulting and as a female engineer I’ve seen this with my own eyes and experienced this in my career. There are challenges to inspire ambition in women and even if that happens the ambition is stifled by organizations and constructs which do not foster such growth. How does one change this- is it a matter of getting to the top and influencing down? Can women be the catalyst for this change and are there male leaders who are willing to embrace this?

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 2:36 am

      Ester,

      I think we can tackle this problems from all angles. However, the easiest one is to start with yourself. If you happen to sell yourself short, recognize this bias in yourself and intervene in the typical thought process that follows it.

      Victor

  • Cari Moore May 15, 2013, 1:11 pm

    I also found this quite ironic… today’s daily idea from Harvard Business Review:

    Both Male and Female Leaders Need to Work on Self-Awareness

    When it comes to core leadership traits — empathy, conflict management, influence, and self-awareness — women have the edge over men, according to a new Hay Group study. And get this: these competencies aren’t necessarily baked into a woman’s DNA; they’re honed and developed on the job. How so? Here’s one hypothesis: since women tend to face more obstacles and resistance than their male counterparts (glass ceiling, anyone?), they must learn to adapt to a much wider range of situations and personalities. But women shouldn’t start humble bragging quite yet: their self-awareness scores — accessing their own strengths and weaknesses, for example — were really low. Men, too. Turns out, both sexes are really bad at looking at themselves in their mirror.

  • Jessica May 15, 2013, 1:11 pm

    Thank you for these comments Victor. I think they are really insightful and it’s definitely something I’ve both experienced myself and seen in other women I’ve worked with. I think your analysis is spot-on, and I would love to see the conversation continue!! As always, thanks for sharing your points of view and perspective with us.

  • Laura May 15, 2013, 1:20 pm

    Hi Victor,
    When I quit my consulting job, the secretary (a woman) told me: you are right, this is not a job for a woman. I quit because I wanted a different lifestyle and had other objectives in life, I had told the secretary the reasons before. I do not consider myself an under-estimator but I do agree that it happens often.
    Regards,
    Laura

  • Zeeshaan May 15, 2013, 1:42 pm

    Victor,

    Great article. One other contributing factor (to your negative self assessment earlier in your career) could be the cultural legacy of your background. As someone from a south Asian culture – humility, deference and respect to leaders, and being conflict avoidant where values taught to me. It took me a while – and I still struggle with – over coming these cultural values in a western work environment.

    I like your prescription to overcome the problem. What also helps is for me to look at my own accomplishments and realize that I’ve only grown when I was stretching myself in situations that were uncomfortable.

    Thanks for your articles!!

    Zee

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 2:41 am

      Zee,

      I totally agree that there is a cultural aspect to this as well. This is a topic for another article, but in Sociology (the focus of my masters) there is the concept of high status vs low status. In all work environments, there is a status hierarchy which basically starts with white male at the top and African American female at the bottom (this is based on empirical surveys). You could take most of my article, replace the word “women” with any demographic group that’s lower status, and the article would probably still be mostly true.

      In a mixed gender group, women have lower status than man. When women are in a women only group, other factors come to play to distinguish status (degree, title, age, etc…). I’ll cover status hierarchies in a future article, but you’re intuition is right that it is a relevant factor in my opinion.

      Victor

  • Nancy Germond May 15, 2013, 1:43 pm

    You so rock, Victor. Keep reinforcing your vision on your daughters; they will be rock stars, too. I forwarded this article to several of my female friends who are struggling in their present jobs and who are true “ninjas” in their technical fields.

  • susanna May 15, 2013, 1:51 pm

    I was sad to read about your 7-year old daughter’s statement after school despite your constant shielding efforts. I hope my 8-months niece doesn’t come to that conclusion in 6 years time!

    For me, I went the total opposite: I tried hard to ‘prove’ that I could do it better than ‘them’ (the men) while I was an engineer. But it’s never good to overcompensate.

    It’s great to see that you care so much for your daughters and I wish more fathers with daughters will not just speak up but put their passion into actions. I heard on a TED broadcast that less than 20% of the Hollywood movies have female protagonists. Maybe we can change this little by little by demanding good movies where female characters actually talk to one another instead of fawning over the male macho hero.

    Let’s make sure the little girls have access to amazing women that they can model themselves after. Let’s make sure the boys learn to respect and treat women like equals, not objects. Although, it’s important to affect women, we can’t forget about the other 50% of the population and the need for their support.

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 2:51 am

      Susanna,

      Your Hollywood comments resonate with me. You’re totally right. One of the reasons I’m a fan of Meryl Streep is that 1) she is an amazing actress, and 2) she often plays the femal protagonist and does quite an exceptional job as well.

      On the topic of female objectification, a subject I’ve been learning more about as of late, I’ve been suprised how pervasive it is. I confess I’ve objectified women without even being aware I was doing… sadly it seemed so normal and everybody was doing it so it didn’t occur to me that it was a problem.

      Now that I have a more heightened awareness of it, it really is everywhere. I really never noticed previously.

      While I understand why men will objectify women (I don’t agree with it, but I understand it), I’ve been really surprised at how often and how intensely women objectify other women. I see this when I hear keynote speeches and a women speaker stands at the podium. Invariably, I hear from the women around me (nice shoes, or oh that hair is terrible, or I can’t believe she wore this or that, etc…)

      As a guy, I’m never looking at a male speaker’s shoes. I could care less.

      For all that women don’t want to be objectified, I still don’t understand why women objectify each other. It seems mysterious to me. Perhaps someone else has a theory on this,

      Victor

      Victor

  • Ash May 15, 2013, 1:52 pm

    Victor –
    Thank you for posting your opinion on this topic – it’s refreshing to see a man’s perspective on this issue. As a woman with a professional business background, this article definitely resonates with me and is a true reflection of many of my female friends.
    I’m guilty as charged – here’s an example; as I sat here this morning, preparing for a case interview with a consulting house coming up, I literally thought “why did they choose me for this opportunity? I’m not good enough”. Not “they can see I have the skills necessary to be a consultant”.
    You’re absolutely right, the only way to stop girls and women from doing ‘to themselves’ is to pro-actively and consciously drive those negative self-perceptions away as they are formed. This requires self-reflection and reinforcement of positive thought processes; affirming the achievements of daughters, wives, sisters as well as female relatives and friends. Women are “as good as any” and need to be able to automatically say yes to those challenges in work and life as opposed to reverting to the ‘safe zone’ by using the excuse of inability to perform or fear of failure.
    As ever, thank you for your great insight – not only on this matter, but also on your case interview preparation material.

  • Tony H May 15, 2013, 1:53 pm

    Victor, I read your articles like reading a bible. I always admire people with big achivements and down-to-earth attitude. I have a few mentors in London and China as I call them. I am fortunate enough to get to know some of them very well. I regard them as my role models.

    To me, you seem to be a close friend and just like them helping and guiding me along the way. Although we have never met, you still seem so real and so close. I just wish that you could write more often and send me more email updates. I sometimes read your emails and articles literally word by word and often find myself reading some over and over again.

    I have had my ups and downs and my share of losing. Most recently I finished from a long term relationship and my beloved dog Emily sadly passed away in a freaky car accident. After reading some very thoughtful quotes and articles, I actually feel much better, perhaps far better than when everything was smooth.

    I shared my feelings and “wisdom” on fate and destiny, or in other words, opportunities. I posted my thoughts on wechat moments. For those of you who dont know wechat, its a new instant messaging app over mobile devices, which is developed by the Tech giant Tencent in China. A new friend commented on my article, saying that she really likes reading the articles I shared on wechat and really likes my attitude towards life.

    I was really happy about it and I guess that is the kind of satisfaction you get from sharing your thoughts with other people.

    A bit longer than I thought for this reply. To sum up, I guess I really to say thank you. Keep it going!

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 2:55 am

      Tony,

      Thanks for the encouraging words and for sharing your story. As for writing more often, unfortunately you and others can read much faster than I can write!

      I also try to be respectful of everyone’s time and to only write when I have something useful to say. That said, I hear your vote and have mentally tallied it.

      Victor

  • Dee Morgan May 15, 2013, 2:10 pm

    Hi Victor,

    I applaud your efforts to shield your daughters from a media that is corrupting the foundations of their self confidence (I recommend the documentary “Miss Representation” – which has women such as Condalisa Rice, Katie Couric and Rachel Maddow speaking about this). My own mother did the same for me growing up. She also said in one way or another almost every day, that I could do anything I put my mind to. She made sure I was engaged in and became competent at things like yard work, working on the car, fishing, skiing and camping. These skills later engendered a sense of proficiency that no one could take away. I also started valuing and respecting the opinions of people who took the time to evaluate the substance of a person rather than critiquing the package, and strive to do the same.

    I am now a successful astrophysicist, so apparently it worked. I know that at some point in my school days I realized that even though the boys would say “I can do that!” and I would say “Maybe I can do that”, in the end our actual results were on average the same. I was just being conservative, not wanting to promise something I wasn’t sure I could deliver. Over time I have found that my employers and colleagues noticed that if I said I could definitely do something it meant it was 100% guaranteed, and they can rely on that. I now will tell people early on that this is my M.O., so they know that I am being conservative when I say maybe, and will often furnish the details of what I think the potential problems or setbacks are. This tends to actually help me, because they see that I have thought the process through and am thinking critically about it. It’s all about interpreting your personal language for people who are speaking a slightly different dialect.

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 3:01 am

      Dee,

      Thanks for the movie suggestion. I love your mom’s focus on functional skill proficiency. I recently went to a boy scouts open house to sign up my daughter. The representative’s first question to me was, do you have a son?

      This pissed me off to no end. Unfortunately, girls are not permitted to join the boy scouts. I prefer the boy scouts because they teach more functional skills – start a fire, wilderness survival, etc. The Girl Scouts curriculum seems more focused on “getting along”.

      I love what you did with your colleagues by proving a “legend” or translation table for others to interpret your comments and to calibrate your degree of confidence. It makes perfect sense.

      Victor

  • Psyc May 15, 2013, 2:33 pm

    Thank you Victor. You might want to look up “stereotype threat”. It’s a social psychology term that explains your observations.

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 3:04 am

      Psyc,

      Thanks for pointing out the term. It turns it my old professor developed the concept, but only popularized it after I graduated so I didn’t learn of it until you mentioned it.

      Thanks,
      Victor

  • Naren May 15, 2013, 2:47 pm

    This is a great insight. We know something like this is happening and never really outlined it. Awesome Victor!

  • Adena May 15, 2013, 3:01 pm

    Great article. I always wish I could experience what it would be like to be a man for just one day in business. This resonates very much with me. But I also feel that I am not as intelligent as other women (not just other men) and thus I constantly doubt my abilities and spend too much time worrying about being not good enough. I feel confident to have reached a director-level position prior to turning 30, but I feel like I’ve hit a wall in my confidence and I can’t imagine ever being a VP. I just don’t think I’m cut out for an executive role. This may be the natural progression of my career, but I’m probably not taking all the right steps to make that happen quickly. Meanwhile, there’s also the challenge not mentioned in this article about women being perceived as bad managers and thus having less opportunities in management. I’ve learned a lot from watching male colleagues who hire rockstars and not only do killer work themselves but also get credit from the executive team for the word of their underlings. But as a woman if I were to hire someone to manage, if they were bad I’d feel it was my fault and if they were good I wouldn’t want to take any of the credit. There are so many things going on at any given time where I put myself down, it’s no wonder in 10 years I’ll probably be half way to the professional levels which my male colleagues reach. Maybe that’s ok… but it’s frustrating when I really want to be a role model to other women, especially in the tech industry where it’s filled with men. I just don’t know if I can do it. I hope that the next generation somehow starts to believe girls can be smart too… but your article is rather depressing about your children, and how they still feel this way, even if you keep them from these stories / media.

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 3:13 am

      Adena,

      If may make an observation, you’re using a comparison-based view of the world. “Compared to X (a vice president, a man, etc…) I don know if I’m good enough.”

      Forget about all of them, just focus on what you need to do to grow your skills. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

      Will you get more “bang for the buck” by make a strength stronger, or a weakness less weak?

      Nobody has it all. My very first boss in corporate was a woman. Even though she was not technically savvy, she was a very aggressive investor in new texhnology projects (which ended up being the focus on my internship experience). I remember being pleasantly surprised that she would not let her personal weakness (lack of personal technical skill) dissuade her from making a sound business decision that happened to involve technology,

      In short, she knew what she was good at and she knew how to work around (in this case hiring me) her weaknesses.

      As for sharing credit, I think it’s great to share credit. I’ve always largely done so and 1) the executives know you were involved, and 2) “A-level” people often want to work with me because I’m very fair to them and given them ample room to shine.

      In short, share credit because you’ll get better talent around you. It may not work in the short run, but I firmly believe it works in the long run,

      Victor

  • Jt May 15, 2013, 3:07 pm

    There’s a continuum that includes a range of answers to the beauty sleep question/comment you received. At one end, is a defensive, combative and offensive retort (probably career-limiting response choice); at the other end is a servile, toadyish and suck-up response, which ultimately, no one respects and it compromises your personal integrity (not a good habit to being your authentic self). A witty reply–not offensive or snarky, but delivered with humble confidence–dominates the middle of the continuum.
    Q: Unsure how to deliver wit? A: think of scenarios and have a few generic and benign replies in your quiver. Q: unsure how to deliver humble confidence? A: practice, practice, practice. Do it 150x (or more) until you’re comfortable. In the meantime, what could have been the best response? Perhaps just a smile with no words, and then pivot the conversation away to something else fairly quickly. You’re not encouraging or perpetuating the behavior, and also not entirely dismissing it either.
    People say stupid things every day– sometimes to be purposefully provocative, to test your moxie or because they’re simply unaware. It’s your choice to give that speaker “power” (a voice), or to diffuse the situation. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
    Each situation will be different, but you’ve got to get over it and deal with over-sized egos and people who want to assert their agendas and will over you, other people or a project. Sometimes objective facts win the day. Other times emotion or charisma wins the day, in spite of the same facts that suggest a different, and presumably, better choice.
    Look at how one comment changed your career path. If I understand correctly, a fellow consultant–one who is competing for the same or similar placement as you–rattled your cage (“a slap in the face”). While not very considerate–and admittedly inappropriate–please consider that consulting may not be a good career choice for you. You’ll get eaten alive if you let this stuff bother you.
    It’s not right, but he probably knew intuitively how to “push your buttons.” I can only imagine his satisfaction–albeit misplaced–that his comment hit the bull’s eye as you internalized it as a personal affront, instead of dismissing it for what it really was–a manifestation of his own insecurity. Unfortunately, it found a home deep inside your being.

    It may be hard to escape people like this in any professional setting. Each consulting engagement is going to bring different personalities into your life–some good, some bad. The one constant will be building bridges and connections with them each time you start a new gig. If you want to stay in consulting, then shrug it off, go have a drink with the group and build camaraderie. Otherwise, try to find an endeavor that accentuates your strengths–something academic-related with like-minded personalities–and sensitivities–to your own.

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 3:19 am

      JT,

      You raise a very good point about tone. One has to say something to avoid feeling like doormat, but if you say something with the wrong tone it ends one problem but causes another.

      One can do it with wit, but Ive found it’s hard for me to be witty on demand! If wit is one’s thing, then a neutral tone also works. Indra Nooyi, ex-BCG, current CEO Pepsi, and my wifes former boss’s boss, has a great quote that she learned from one of her parents,

      “Assume Good Intent”

      In this case, assume the person who made the beauty sleep comment did so with positive (albeit misguided) intentions. Then respond in a tone appropriate to assumed good intent… It judgmental, more matter-of-fact-explanatory in tone,

      Victor

  • Raphael May 15, 2013, 4:05 pm

    It is my believe that you can’t shield children, or as a matter of fact, people, from anything. You just have to give them values into how to deal with the different situations in life. Shielding people makes them weak.

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 3:28 am

      Raphael,

      I understand your point and feel your point is increasingly true with age. Young children are sponges. They absorb everything good, bad and in between very quickly. The challenge for me as a parent is to teach values by ensuring my voice has a greater volume in the early impressionable years, and in later years once the values are set very little shielding is necessary.

      For example, I shield my 5 year old from racism, sexism, extreme violence, kidnapping, and child abuse. As it is, she is barely sure of her place in this world. I don’t need some racist cursing at he run verbal expletives and arguing how she’s a worthless minority because of her ethnic background, and how she should just commit suicide to do the world a favor.

      Some people believe this and in my opinion it is overwhelming for a 5 year old to maturely process. In short, if she heard that today, she would take it to heart and believe it. So I’ve opted to shield it from her for the time being.

      Victor

    • Nat May 20, 2013, 4:57 pm

      Shielding makes people weak?! Bizarro comments make me weep…with laughter!

  • Quest May 15, 2013, 5:22 pm

    Dear Victor,

    I was just wondering: what do you think about “arrogant” women? Those who over estimate their forces? I feel like such a person. I was quite sure about several projects i’ve been working on for some time, and I failed in All of them. I know that I can do excellent job, I’ve done some in my past and was always best in studies, but in the ‘real’ life I just fail. How can we actually estimate our real abilities ? Do you know any good working methods? I feel like I’m loosing the faith in myself, it’s painful

    • Victor Cheng May 16, 2013, 3:33 am

      Quest,

      You have a miscalibration problem. You self assessments aren’t accurate (based on historical data). I recommended seeking feedback from others around you. In aggregate, the “crowd sourced” view point is surprisingly accurate.

      For every “failed” project, schedule a meeting with the project sponsor and your colleagues on the project. Say, “the project didn’t go as well as I wanted. I’m trying to improve my skills and would love your feedback on why you think the project did not succeed and what you think I could have done differently. Please be brutally honest. I’m really puzzled by this”

      Given the consistency of your results, most likely there is some persistent mistake you are making, probably without you even realizing it. As a result you have a low awareness issue that you need the help of others to fix. Once you get enough data points, a pattern will emerge (it always does). Look for it. Most likely it won’t be something you want to hear, so try to be open minded about it.

      Once you figure out the issue, go work on improving in that area.

      Victor

      • Quest May 16, 2013, 2:14 pm

        Victor,

        Thank you for the response.
        Ok, I’ll see what I can do.

        Best regards, and thank you for the great job you’re doing.

  • Yuliana May 15, 2013, 6:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing it! It so happens that a friend and I were discussing parts of your topic today at lunch.

    To be successful, executives need to master several leadership styles / roles in various situations, and in general be aware of their perceived confidence and character.

    While you are stressing the need for awareness of one’s own general ability vs. confidence gap, we have also tried to solve the issue of HOW to portray more confidence / the needed style in a particular situation, e.g. a client negotiation.

    Josh Pais’ “Committed Impulse” came to my mind when thinking of the need to combat the brain’s natural tendency to say “I suck!” whenever projects with stretch potential appear.

    According to Josh, you simply need to revert yourself to the present moment and say “I’m back!” – to stop that little but powerful negative voice.

    As a young wantepreneur and passionate language coach working with executives, I constantly use this technique.

    Stretching is fun in the long run – in fitness and in life!

  • Jann May 15, 2013, 9:41 pm

    Fantastic read! Thank you so much for sharing this. I often work with leaders to help understand how a great leader is being developed. You are right that it is the challenging experience, the ‘stretch’ projects that builds great leaders. It is unfortunate that women has a higher tendency to reject projects that they do not feel they are 100% capable of delivering. Yet these experiences are so important for a future leader.

  • Yee May 15, 2013, 10:46 pm

    Victor: I think when it comes to bringing kids up, telling them they can be anything is different to having them believe they can be anything.

    I am someone who has a decent perception of themselves. As a 21 year old female, I honestly believe I have a very exciting future ahead of me. At the same time, I realise I have a long way to go and much to learn.

    This burning desire and belief that I am going to be of great influence in this world, does not stem from my parents or anyone telling me I can be and achieve anything. It comes from people telling me I can’t and a constant desire to prove that I can. To be more specific, all of this comes from me trying to step out of my older brother’s shadow; someone who got fantastic grades and somehow did all the “right” stuff and is now a doctor.

    Humans aren’t robots. You can’t tell or order them to do or believe something. That knowledge and belief has to come internally, not externally.

  • Mike Zajac May 15, 2013, 11:40 pm

    Victor, I agree with what you write, but I would like to point that the source of this self-depreciation is not so social at all.

    Differences between overall personalities, habits, behaviors of men and women have been mostly shaped biologically by the evolution. Ideas of unisex come from XIX-th century socialism and have been tested well by Israeli farming communes, the pioneers of Jewish colonization. The observations are that differences between sexes, including the phenomena of self-depreciation, could not be changed by setting up a completely different culture.
    Check out this material: http://www.heretical.com/wilson/rkibbutz.html
    It seems sensible if you think that the nature of men and women is at the base common, no matter if it’s in Amazon jungles, African savannah, China, Russia, Germany or the USA. Always women have the same problems with men and vice versa.

  • Pallavi May 16, 2013, 12:56 am

    Stupendous Read! People need these kind of writings to build on confidence rather then “Self Help” books. I am glad to know that you put a daily effort to boost the self esteem of ur daughters. I wish all the parents did the same , world will be a better place.

  • Yolande May 16, 2013, 2:47 am

    Thank you very much for the article. It’s spot on. I grew up in an only woman household, and was always urged and pushed to excel. However, whenever I have to rank my abilities I always tend to underestimate myself. What does expert mean? What if their definition is more stringent than mine??? I’m actually glad to see that its not only me who does this 🙂 And being aware is the first step to overcome.

  • Rohini May 16, 2013, 6:56 am

    Great, insightful read as always.
    However, letting your daughters explore popular culture carriers like magazines, TV, etc. for themselves at a later date (when they able to decide what is trashy and what isn’t) might lead to better holistic emotional development. It will definitely help them to relate to more people and their peers and they will eventually learn not to take the content in those publications seriously (as you yourself have done).
    Sometimes building self confidence in children comes when parents let their children know they have high expectations from them in certain areas and also letting them know they trust them to make the right decisions for themselves. Shielding them beyond a certain age reinforces the belief that:
    a> The content is exciting/glamorous/worth caring about (which it definitely isn’t).
    b> The child is not fit to make decisions for itself and maybe later on rebellion against this or even reinforced negative self-perception.
    But in the end, each child is unique and you seem to be doing a wonderful job with your girls. It takes a lot of introspection and sensitivity to identify a problem which is not directly affecting you and to try and spot the cause and propose a good solution and you have done just that. Thank you Victor.

  • Rhume May 16, 2013, 9:36 am

    Great Writeup,

    I will follow up on this by doing a little more research since I work with women.

  • Admirer May 16, 2013, 9:49 am

    Victor,

    Thank you for taking the courage to write this; with all the recent interest around women leadership (with Sherl Sandberg’s “Lean In”) I’ve wanted to hear a male’s perspective. Your blog was hence, very refreshing and also quite true. This article has been shared with all my female friends who are all highly educated and working hard to build our career. I hope all your male readers also read this blog; for this is a very important issue and one that everyone should be aware of.

    • Richard Enders May 16, 2013, 9:54 am

      Yes I agree with you completely!

  • Richard Enders May 16, 2013, 9:54 am

    Very inspiring indeed, you are doing a great job I must say, hats off to your humility and frankness in sharing your life experiences! it s very humbling..seriously!

  • Richard Enders May 16, 2013, 9:56 am

    It s amazing how you can take out time to write and guide people so much without having any self interest in it! I have come across very few people like this who are selfless in life

  • Gustavo Almeida May 16, 2013, 11:15 am

    Hey Victor,

    Great article. For sure something to keep in mind in your professional lives.

    Where is the button to share this article? I wanna tweet it.

    Congrats! keep sharing your insights!
    Thanks.
    Gustavo

    • kirsten May 16, 2013, 1:34 pm

      Gustavo,

      We just added the social media share button (including Twitter) above the comments so you can now share this article.

  • Dipo May 20, 2013, 12:41 pm

    Great read…#inspired#

  • Drago May 20, 2013, 12:57 pm

    Good insight about the “underconfidence” that women tend to share.

    I have one problem with the article, however.

    The writer mentioned that her daughter wanted to be a “princess” and the writer suggested that such a desire is a bad thing.

    It’s perfectly natural for women to have these desires, and they are in large part GENETIC not environmental, despite what one may like to think. (Read Red Queen by Matt Ridley which provides an evolutionary and genetic explanation for the differences between men and women, which is backed by science, for the most part)

    If a girl wants to be a “princess” or a “stay-at-home mom”, let her! Who are you to tell her that’s wrong?

    Much can be said for the benefits of women in the aggressive career world, but that does not mean that all women should be pressured into this kind of lifestyle. The pressures from a “patriarchal society” that feminists try to escape are replaced by equal social pressures from feminists which mandate that a woman has to be career-oriented.

    It’s a shame that society is trying to make women feel bad for being full time mothers, when these are some of the best women I have encountered.

  • Kiran May 22, 2013, 11:43 pm

    I liked your article because I believe myself to be exactly as you described it. I was an only child with no siblings (so no gender struggle) and an engineer dad, teacher mom…so a lot of positive reinforcement of education. But I am shy and self-doubting…even just plain lazy at times…I always was…lol. My dad use to say that I could do anything if only I “applied” myself. He was very intelligent, disciplined and driven to construct…not money-hungry…but a “true engineer” at heart. He could build anything he wanted from scratch.

    I also went to an all girl’s school which helped reinforce “I can do anything mentality”.

    I guess when I was fresh out of school I really wanted to prove myself to the world…work hard, reap rewards, control even…but now I feel far more relaxed about myself. I don’t feel the need to prove a thing except to myself.

    My view point on life has changed to “I want to be happy! and have no regrets!” I want to do things before I die…working hard in an office till I die is not one of them.

    I guess I have changed…and perhaps a lot of 50+ women feel the same way. It is not to say that they aren’t still brilliant but perhaps their goals in life are less about “controlling” or “achieving” something to prove to the world they are better than everyone…it is more to make themselves live happier lives.

    In all honesty, it has become plain boring to prove to a bunch people I barely know that I am better than they are.

    I have got far more entertaining things to do with my precious time on earth. For example, I want to take up boxing this summer! 🙂 Should be awesome!

    Next year…getting my motorcycle license! YES!!!

  • Andrea Scott Sep 25, 2013, 9:53 pm

    Victor:

    I resonate with this post. I certainly see how underestimating my skills have set me back.

    However I think that the difference between masculine and feminine energy impacts on self-perception. Masculine energy is adrenalin based and seeks to be seen as successful and a winner. Feminine energy is oxytocin based and seeks to nurture and build relationships.

    Since women seek to build relationships, we don’t present ourselves as having a high ranking because it could be interpreted that someone is lower than me. Yes, I recognize that these are broad generalizations but it impacts how I present myself to the world.

    On the other hand, I commend you for your efforts to encourage your daughters to step into their greatness and become their best selves.

    Thanks again for a very thought-provoking article.

    Blessings,

    Andrea Scott

  • Shini Dec 24, 2013, 1:42 am

    Dear Victor

    Very insightful observation for women- especially since it is coming from a male. I agree that there is this self-perception gap that is rampant among women- a key reason why women don’t even apply to jobs if they feel that they don’t have even one of the required JD criteria- whereas most men (at least the ones that I know) would go ahead and apply anyway. However, as a women I have always intuitively followed my own instincts and always accepted job offers which were way out of my skill set. In hindsight while accepting those jobs I never had a shred of doubt that i could not succeed- rather, I had a can do attitude as a result of which I have excelled in most of these roles (provided there was team and boss support). In hindsight I see that if I was at all under confident I would never have even accepted those jobs (including jobs that meant leaving everything and moving to Africa all on my own). At many times I did not even know what exactly these jobs required me to do, but i picked up the skills along the way and did my best. As a result for my continuous drive to excel, I have now changed 4-5 careers in my goal to find my perfect fit (not there yet!). I am not scared to start at the bottom over again as I know that the only way is upwards. I don’t know if I actively undermine my skills ( though definitely not in the job interview), but I am not afraid to stretch myself. In my view, it is this stretching outside my comfort zone that has been the most rewarding for me. Also, in my recent job, I had a what I suspect ‘C’ player boss who was constantly trying to bring me down. I have now learnt that as employees and especially as women we should not take disrespect or discrimination at the workplace. I am now strong enough to confront it if this happens in the future, even at the risk of loosing my job. My advice to women is not to believe what we have been conditioned to grow up with (gender inequality does exist) and just push through in order to achieve your dreams and also, never to accept discrimination and abuse at workplaces or in relationships. It is only when women as a collective have a stronger self perception and enough self respect that there will be shift in the dominant paradigm of gender inequality.
    Victor- i would also like to congratulate you on how well you are raising your daughters- women who have supportive and caring fathers who believed in them no matter what- turn out to be secure and confident individuals. Keep going and many thanks for sharing your insights.

    Blessings
    Shini

    • Victor Cheng Jan 27, 2014, 12:17 pm

      Shini,

      Thank you so much for sharing your personal experiences and comments. You’ve done things in the most optimal way. And I hope you won’t take offense at it, but my first gut reaction when I read what you wrote is that you’ve approached your career in the way that men would (and as you implied, unfortunately, many women would not — but absolutely could and should).

      I hope others will read and learn from your story.

      Victor

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