By Laura Cox Kaplan
The private sector has made significant progress in thinking about the gender gap. According to a recent McKinsey study, 75 percent of CEOs include gender diversity in their list of top 10 business concerns. Despite that awareness and the attention the issue receives from many (especially at the top of organizations), it has yet to translate consistently into programs and mindsets that yield the results we are looking for.
That’s not to say that there isn’t innovative work taking place. Increasingly, organizations large and small are embracing new strategies for worker flexibility for example. Those programs have been shown to positively impact the retention of female employees. But, the results still aren’t as great as they should be. That begs the question, what’s missing?
For almost 12 years I worked as an executive and partner at PwC. While my work focused largely on political and public policy engagement, I also sat on the executive management team where we grappled with talent challenges including gender equity. The firm developed some innovative programs to address specific challenges that often occur with natural life transitions. Those programs yielded positive results, but they didn’t fix the problem.
More recently, I have been working with several non-profit organizations (including Running Start where I serve as the Republican Board Co-Chair) focused on closing the gender gap in Congress and in elected offices more broadly. This is particularly important because women make up more than 50 percent of the population, and the perspective, knowledge, and unique leadership skills that women bring to the table is especially critical as the world has become both more global and more complex. The need for more diverse perspectives to solve these complex problems has never been more important, and that is true for both government and the private sector. Further, in a 2011 research study by Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman (co-authors of “How to be Exceptional,”) found that women were “significantly more effective on 12 of 16 leadership competencies.” These were competencies the duo found – over 30 years of research –to be important to overall leadership effectiveness. Those qualities even included competencies more typically associated with male leaders, such as “taking initiative” and “driving for results.”
So, if women outshine men in these key areas, what’s the problem?
My interest in the topic of women’s leadership, and specifically closing the gender gap in the c-suite, as well as in elected office — a problem impacting both political parties — led me to develop a course at American University’s Women in Politics Institute under professor and author Jennifer Lawless. The course doesn’t just focus on what makes women unique, but also (and I believe more importantly) on the roadblocks that women often put in their own paths. Make no mistake, there are often external factors that inhibit achievement, but I firmly believe that the roadblocks many women erect for themselves are often even more debilitating and difficult to overcome.
Scientific research supports this. Dr. Daniel Amen, who studied the differences between male and female brains, wrote in “Unleashing the Power of the Female Brain,” that women’s brains actually are more active than male brains, and have as much as 30 percent more neurons firing at any given time. That extra mental capacity is a strength, but it may make women more vulnerable to over thinking, or ruminating (essentially allowing thoughts to run over and over in your head, but not in a way that’s necessarily going to yield a positive or productive outcome). Often we see rumination manifest itself when a woman makes a mistake –even a small one. If she doesn’t attempt to reframe the mishap into a more positive, proactive, and less negative experience she may run the risk of a downward spiral. When that spiral is fueled by negative self-talk, it can shake her confidence, leaving her depleted and less able to bounce back quickly.
To exacerbate these tendencies, women often hold themselves to impossibly high standards. When that standard is perfectionism, it is unattainable and can create self-doubt and what experts refer to as “imposter syndrome,” essentially feeling like a fraud or “not good enough” regardless of what is actually true.
And while common sense may tell you that individuals driven by perfectionism will be motivated to work harder and persevere, the opposite may in fact be true. When perfectionism is the ultimate (but unattainable) goal, it can actually stand in the way of taking action and stop you from taking smart risks such as speaking up, volunteering for new assignments, or even running for elected office. We often watch our male colleagues jump in while we hold back until we believe we are perfectly qualified. When perfection is our goal, it is more likely to limit us from making progress at all.
Let me take it one step further. Think about the value that comes from feedback and mentorship. The more authentic the feedback – on both sides of the table – the more beneficial it will be. But if you are dealing with a perfectionist or someone who pursues perfection as a goal, it can be especially difficult for that person to get comfortable hearing feedback, or even talking openly about areas for personal improvement. Those feelings may manifest themselves in defensiveness, making otherwise constructive feedback all but useless and limiting the person’s opportunity for continued growth (and the organization’s ability to help that employee maximize their value).
For those among us who are perfectionists or who work with perfectionists, we know it can be difficult to turn off this tendency. The trick is increasing awareness, and knowing what to look for (in ourselves and in others). This is where organizations have a real opportunity. If this trait is as common as the science and research seem to suggest, it would stand to reason that a better understanding and higher level of conversation around these tendencies would be useful and very productive. Imagine combining some of the best, cutting-edge programs with increased emphasis on awareness of roadblocks and the potential power that can come from that.
Increasing the number of women in senior leadership ranks and in elected office is a critical and worthwhile goal, but one that must be tackled across multiple fronts. The time has come to engage in a more thoughtful discussion about employee assessments (and self assessments) and how organizations and employees will benefit from more candid conversation and thoughtful awareness.
A corporate and non-profit board member and adjunct professor at American University, Laura is Board Co-Chair of Running Start, a non-profit that encourages young women to recognize their potential as leaders and future candidates for elected office