The #1 Thing Holding Women Back in Business

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
  • 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

  • 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

  • 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!!!

  • 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.

  • Dipo May 20, 2013, 12:41 pm

    Great read…#inspired#

  • 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.

  • 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

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