Episode 84: When Women Decide

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…women, decision making and risk taking.

“People often think a woman leader who’s made a mistake should be demoted. Whereas a male leader who took a risk and it didn’t work, out, sure he made bad judgment, but he doesn’t lose as many status or competence points.”

Coming up, women make a lot more big decisions than we used to. But even today, our judgment isn’t entirely trusted.

But first, this episode is supported by Write, Speak, Code…

Write/Speak/Code is about owning your expertise. As a woman and woman-identifying developer, their conference gives you the skills to be more visible and to lead through writing, public speaking, and an open source code contribution. This year's conference is in Chicago, June 15-18.

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Therese Huston is a cognitive psychologist. She’s also the founding director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Seattle University. And she’s the author of a new book called How Women Decide – What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices.

For centuries most women didn’t get to decide anything that happened outside the home. Until pretty recently our brains weren’t thought to be up to the task.

“So in the United States women received the right to vote in 1920, which is after almost a dozen other countries, in fact the UK you’ll be proud to hear got the right to vote for women in 1918, although it’s kind of funny, because at the time only women over 30 were allowed to vote. It took a little longer before younger women were trusted with their judgment. So that’s 1920. Fifty years later in 1970 women were still being denied lines of credit, suggesting women couldn’t be held accountable for making their own financial decisions. One of my favorite stories here is about Billie Jean King who many of us know as a champion tennis player. And she won 3 Wimbledon titles in a single year. And she brought in tremendous earnings enough to cover all the expenses for her family. Well she tied get credit card in her own name, but the banks wouldn’t give her one. The only way she could secure a credit card was if her husband was listed as the primary person on the account. Now we could point to some logic here if her husband had an income but he didn’t. Billie Jean King was putting him through law school. So this is, we have this long history of women not being trusted to make important decisions.

And there is a hangover from that history. Society still has trouble seeing women as decision makers. Therese points to a Pew Research study from last year. It found people saw men as more ambitious than women… 

“But there was an even bigger gap on decisiveness. Men were perceived as being much more decisive than women, at least men leaders. And that’s a real problem because there’s this continued perception that if you want someone decisive and you want them at the top, what you want is a male leader.”

But she says when it comes to healthy adults…

“The research actually shows that men and women are just as likely to struggle with a decision. There are certain populations, like teenagers – evidently female teenagers are less decisive than male teenagers.”

But then they’re not usually leading anything either.

A few years ago Therese wasn’t thinking about any of this. She came to this project by accident. One day she started asking her academic colleagues about their pet peeves, and one psychologist said, ‘All the books about decision making are written by men.’ Therese had quite a lot of those books on her shelves. She’d never noticed this. Then she realized not only where they all written by men – but all the decision-makers they focused on were men too. They were all stockbrokers or airline pilots…

“And they were fascinating examples but I suddenly had this lens, this realization that there was a real gap, of not looking at women as decision makers. And it’s something that nagged at me. I set aside the topic for about 6 months because I didn’t want to write about gender. And this topic wouldn’t let me go. Everywhere I looked I would see this glaring gap.”

AM-T: “Why didn’t you want to write about gender?”

“You know, my experience growing up as a graduate and as a post-doc was that it was very gendered to study gender. Most of the people I knew who studied gender were women, and it didn’t seem, this shows my own bias, it seemed the hard problems were the ones the men were studying. So I turned towards neuroscience, and I was the only female in the lab for years, and sure enough I got to address some interesting and hard problems. But it’s fascinating, it turns out writing about gender is harder than writing about neuroscience, so it’s been a nice affirmation that this is a very hard issue to study.”

AM-T: “In what way? Why has it been harder?”

“It’s harder because when you’re talking about neuroscience you can use terms that people mostly don’t have any clue what they mean. So I can talk about the hippocampus or the lateral pre- frontal cortex, that, it might be impressive, but there’s a good chance most listeners won’t have any context or frame of reference for that. Whereas if I talk about what it’s like to make a contribution in a high pressure meeting, and you’re going to propose a new idea, and how men and women might do that differently, people have plenty of experience with that, and strong opinions. So trying to explain what the research has to say about gender is stepping into a complicated set of experiences people already have, or they already have opinions and they might be more skeptical of the research.”

Welcome to my world.

But back to the way we see men and women. And the fact we don’t instinctively see women as leadership material. Therese says there’s this jargon-y academic term ‘role congruity’…

“This idea that when we think of a leader and we think of a man, those two concepts have a lot of overlapping qualities. We think of men as ambitious and action-oriented and we think of a leader as ambitious and action-oriented. Whereas when we think of the qualities of a woman and a leader there doesn’t tend to be much overlap. Women are thought to be more friendly, more compassionate and more nurturing. And we may like those qualities in a leader but they’re not the qualities we immediately want. We want a decisive leader and we expect men to be decisive and we don’t expect that of women, for instance.”

AM-T: “And also you point out that women’s decisions are questioned a lot more than men’s are. Or least least when they’re decisions not everyone agrees with. So for instance when Yahoo CEO Marissa Meyer made that famous announcement that she was no longer going to allow Yahoo workers to work from home, there was this storm of media criticism over this. And then a week later something else happened. Talk about that because I had absolutely no idea about that.”

“So you’ve captured it perfectly. Most people know Meyer ended the work from home policy for Yahoo. But what people don’t know is that about a week after Meyer announced her decision, Best Buy’s CEO Hubert Joly announced the exact same decision, that they were ending Best Buy’s work from home policy.”

For those of you outside the US, Best Buy is a big electronics retailer.

“Now when Joly made this announcement it made a few headlines, particularly in Minnesota where Best Buy is headquartered. But there were headlines for a few months and then the story vanished, whereas we’re still talking about Yahoo. I’ve seen interviews this year where people are debating was it a good idea for Yahoo and Marissa Meyer to cancel the work from home policy? Now you might be thinking, well, Yahoo probably has more employees who work from home, but no, Best Buy had approximately 20 times more employees who were affected by this decision. So if we were really talking about the decision, we should be talking about Joly just as often. But for making the same decision Joly got a few sidelong glances whereas Meyer has been second-guessed for years.”

AM-T: “And why? Just because she’s a female making a decision that affects a lot of people’s lives?”

“Well this is an interesting, complex issue. When I talk about it to some people they say well, it matters more that Meyer made this decision because she’s a woman, and we expect women to be more understanding of other women who perhaps need more flexible work schedules. And that’s an excellent point, but it still shows an underlying bias that we’re judging her decision differently than we do men’s, that we’re expecting women to look out for the flock, to have a different set of criteria, whereas men in the same leadership role can make a decision based on just, what’s the bottom line?”

And get away with it. And as she says part of the problem we have with women making these kinds of apparently ‘harsh’ decisions is that we expect women to come from a different place – we expect them to care more. And we often expect them to be collaborative. And you’ve probably read that being collaborative, that’s something women are supposed do well – it’s seen as more of a female trait. And it’s usually seen as a positive thing, this business of listening to others and seeking consensus among your team.

“On the one hand it makes sense, people think they want a collaborative, cooperative supervisor. But the problem is people don’t perceive that collaborative and decisive mix. If you’re a leader and you want people to weigh in on a decision, well, one interpretation of that is that maybe you can’t decide for yourself. So the upside is you’re being collaborative, your employees are going to like you, the downside is you just lost some points on the decisiveness scale. And that’s a real problem for women because many women take a collaborative approach to decision making. That probably perpetuates this perspective that decisiveness is not a strength for women.”

She tells the story of a woman she interviewed for her book. This woman said whenever a female manager at her company had a big decision to make there’d be a line of people waiting to give input. And as this employee put it, ‘the last person who touched it’ would influence the manager’s decision.

“And when I asked her well why don’t the men have a line outside their door, she said when the men make a decision, you’ll find out. There’s no opportunity for input, they’ll let you know if they want input. And this brings us to the possible advice for women, which is that if you are open to input to make it very clear when you’re taking input and whose input you’re prioritizing and why.”

Which does sound like a lot of extra stuff for women to think about. But she says doing that could prevent people from assuming you sway like the wind…

“So you can be seen as both decisive and collaborative, and it’s not seen as an open-ended free-for-all.”

I’d love to hear from people about this – a lot of you listening have plenty of decision-making experience in a work setting. Email me via the website or better still, leave a comment under this episode or on the Facebook page so we can get a conversation going.

Making a decision involves taking a risk – by deciding one thing you’re dropping other options. And Therese found that despite the overwhelming belief that women are risk-averse, it really depends on the type of risk you’re talking about. She says when it comes to workplace decisions, men and women take equal numbers of risks.

But if women are risk-averse in certain circumstances, is that surprising? Maybe you’ve read about this research too or you see it in your daily life. I read about it in a New York Times piece a couple of months ago and Therese writes about it in her book. But when men and women were observed with their kids in the playground, the psychologist doing the observing found parents of either sex were far more protective of their daughters then their sons. They were more likely to say, ‘be careful!’ to a girl than a boy. And when a boy didn’t want to do something like climb down a fireman’s pole…the parents pressured him to try it. If a girl said she was scared to try the pole the parents were like, that’s fine. And when a girl did go down the pole her parents rushed to assist her – even if the girl didn’t ask for help.

When a boy took on the pole, his parents didn’t offer physical help, they just coached him from the sidelines…

“So it’s definitely associated with men, and our language is very telling on this…in American culture there are phrases like ‘man up’, and ‘a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do’ and ‘be a man or a mouse’…the idea is you need to stand up and take a risk here. There aren’t comparable phrases for women.”

Instead we’ve got things like nervous Nellie…

“Nervous Nellie, exactly. If anything we’ve got phrases that suggest women should shrink away from risk.

In terms of women being punished for taking risks…there’s some really interesting Yale research by Victoria Brescoll, looking at when men and women take a risk and they make a mistake. Women are judged much more harshly and they lose a lot of status points – people often think a woman leader who’s made a mistake should be demoted. Whereas a male leader who took a risk and it didn’t work, out, well, there were a lot of circumstantial reasons why that was a problem. Sure he made bad judgment, but he doesn’t lose as many status or competence points. So it becomes this tricky issue. The whole point with taking a risk is you don’t know how it’s going to work out, so taking a risk inherently involves uncertainty, and women are punished much more when that uncertainty becomes a failure."

As Therese was talking I started thinking about the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. Since Therese and I spoke Rousseff has been suspended from office and she may be impeached. Now I don’t know a lot about what Rousseff may or may not have done to fiddle Brazil’s budget—the risks she may have taken. But I couldn’t help wondering if Rousseff were a HE, would HE be undergoing the exact same process of investigation and removal from office?

“I wondered that as well. I’ve been following that news story a bit, and one of the things that some of the reporters have commented on is that the corruption that’s happened under Rousseff’s political career, that’s happened recently, is that there have been previous male leaders who have had the same problems with corruption, that this is nothing new. So the question is why is she being grilled for this and why does she face impeachment when this has gone on for a while? Now other people would say there’s a level at which this has happened, in terms of her moving around funds that are particularly suspect.

But I think that gets to anther bias about women which is the assumption that women will be more honest… that’s one of the findings out there, which is that women will be more honest than men. And it makes me wonder are women then held to higher standard for honesty than men are? So a male politician who’s a bit corrupt or he’s misrepresented the facts, we can brush that aside. But it’s considered a feminine quality to be honest, so if a woman defies that and does something that’s clearly dishonest, I think it raises our hackles more than it might for a man making the same choice.”

And of course that made me think about Hillary Clinton. Her honesty and openness keep coming under the spotlight.

AM-T: “One of the things Clinton is lambasted for is that she won’t admit her mistakes [her emails, deadly situation at US embassy in Libya], and that she doesn’t really apologize…that this is one of her big failings, that she doesn’t admit that she’s done something wrong. And reading the book I wondered if that is a Clinton trait… or if her sex and her knowledge of how she’ll be judged if she does say sorry, affects the fact that she doesn’t say sorry?”

“It would be fascinating to ask her that question right? If one could have a candid conversation. I wouldn’t be surprised if even at a subconscious level that’s playing into her reluctance to take ownership for those things…because she probably hasn’t read the research but the research indicates that when women make a mistake and it becomes clear that it was costly they’re held under more scrutiny and it’s judged as a more serious indictment of their abilities, and so it’s probably easier for people to debate this out and for people to take different perspectives and make different arguments as to whether the problem is as big as other people say, than for her to step in and admit and apologize. On the one hand Americans love an apology, they love it when people take responsibility for their mistakes. But on the other hand that’s primarily been male leaders who have done that and been able to remain male leaders. And there’s a real question of what kind of competency and status she might lose if she were able to do that.”

I’d love to know if there’s a female politician we’re forgetting who’s actually said sorry publically for something – maybe she survived, or lost her job, but I’d love to hear about it if you can think of anyone.

Therese says risk-taking is like decision making in that more people need to see women as risk-takers. On that note, she has some advice.

“It’s important for women to draw attention to the successful risks they’ve taken. I admit this is never a piece of career advice I’ve received. When you’re listing, doing the year performance review, and you’re listing your accomplishments, you’re typically pointing out events that were well attended or a project that brought in a lot of capital. And one of my suggestions would be that a thing to do when discussing your performance with your boss in a one-on-one conversation would be to point out, ‘here’s a risk I took and here’s how it ended up working out. No one expected this event to work, and I pushed for it, and it ended up being the best attended event of the year.’ And the reason I think it’s important we begin doing this is that when men take risks we tend to notice it much more than when women take risks. Researchers have done studies where they give people identical descriptions of actions someone took in their workplace, and people will notice the risks the man took and if you just substitute in a female name they don’t notice those were risks when it was a woman.”

So she says if you’re in a workplace that values risk taking, try it. She says a male colleague might get credit for his risk without needing to raise it while your success could be overlooked. And if this sounds like another example of women having to do more to get what we deserve…it is.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Therese Huston, author of How Women Decide, for being my guest on this show.

If you’re in tech don’t forget to check out write/speak/code, their conference is coming up in mid-June.

Thanks again to those of you who’ve taken a couple of minutes to write an iTunes review of the show – I would love to get up to 200 reviews – that’s only 45 to go. If you can help, great. Having ratings and reviews does help the show get noticed.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.