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?


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?


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
  • 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.

  • Zeeshaan May 15, 2013, 1:42 pm


    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!!


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


      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.


  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Ester May 15, 2013, 1:07 pm

    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


      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.


  • 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


      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.


  • 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!


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


      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.


  • 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.


  • 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…

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