A recent article in the New York Times by Therese Huston says yes!—women are better decision makers in stressful situations. Huston cites research by several neuroscientists that shows that in low-stress situations, women and men make decisions about risk in similar ways. When stress is introduced, however, women bring some unique strengths to the table that result in better decisions. Here are some examples of the positive impact women have had:
- Credit Suisse examined 2,400 global corporations from 2005 to 2011, which includes the years just before and after the financial crisis, and found that companies with at least one woman on their board outperformed comparable companies with all-male boards by 26 percent.
- Several studies show that investments run by female hedge-fund managers outperformed those run by male managers.
One of the research participants, Cherry, a technology manager, explained why she does not think that men need support to advance in the same way that women need support: “There are a lot more spaces for men than there are for women.” In other words, men just have more opportunity to advance. Because the number of jobs for women at the top is so low and the percentage of women in senior management has been stagnant for so long—at least the last ten years—it is easy to understand how women may see each other as competitors for the limited number of positions available. Laurie, a white manager in her forties in the travel industry, explained her viewpoint in this way:
Women have made a lot of progress in recent decades in the United States by increasing our representation in the ranks of middle management and earning more college and graduate degrees than men do. Yet the wage gap between women and men doing the same work and a dearth of women at the top of organizations stubbornly persist. Scholars have explored many possible sources of these persistent wage-gap and glass-ceiling inequities. A new study suggests that confidence could be one factor holding us back. What is perceived as a lack of confidence is probably the result of socialization that serves us well as we are growing up female but gets in the way when we enter the workplace. For example, have you ever
One of my first jobs after college was as a researcher in a small mental health research institute where about half the staff was female and the senior leaders were both men. At that point, I had been active in various social movements, including the women’s liberation movement, for several years and had learned about the importance, for me, of women supporting each other. As I was newly hired and in need of support, I did what I knew how to do and organized the other female staff to go out for a “women’s lunch” so that we could get to know each other better. When word got back to the men in senior management that the women were going out to lunch together for the first time, all hell broke loose! I was surprised at their reaction—we were just going out to lunch—but we were ordered to cancel our plans. Not only did we not go out to lunch, but the other women barely spoke to me for the rest of my tenure at the institute. They appeared to have gotten the message from the male leaders that being too friendly with the other women was not good for their careers, and I was a person who had dangerous ideas that were, somehow, threatening to the established order.
Would you be surprised to learn that teams with a balance of women and men are more productive, but less happy, than either all-female or all-male teams? Those were the findings from research recently published by MIT economists. In fact, the gender-balanced offices in the study produced 41 percent more revenue than single-sex workplaces.
Why Higher Performance?
The key to higher performance in this study is that the more highly productive teams were gender balanced. In other words, roughly equal numbers of women and men made up the teams rather than only token representatives. What might account for this higher performance?
For a recent article in the New York Times, Adam Bryant interviewed four women CEOs about how to thrive in the workplace. These leaders described “headwinds” or challenges they have faced as women leaders and tips for how to overcome them. Examples of their headwinds included
- Receiving feedback during performance reviews that they dress too sternly or smile too much or too little—thereby making other people uncomfortable
- Receiving promotions without adequate resources to do the job
- Feeling they needed to downplay their accomplishments to fit in
- Being underestimated or not given the benefit of the doubt
People often ask me why I study and write about friendship in the workplace. The importance of friendship outside of the workplace has been written about extensively since the time of Aristotle. David Brooks of the New York Times recently agreed with the ancient writers that friendships bring out our better selves, radiating social and political benefits that we all need.
A number of scholars have written about the way adult women’s friendships outside of work help us stay upright in the face of life’s challenges. Jean Baker Miller and Irene Pierce Stiver wrote about the benefits to women’s mental and emotional health that result from having the support of other women in the workplace.
Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Lean In, makes the point that women cannot ignore the many double binds they face in the workplace if they want to be successful, however they may define success. She makes a strong case and cites solid research about the importance for women of being likeable if they wish to succeed and the double bind this creates for women. One of the studies described by Sandberg was conducted by two professors who used a Harvard Business School case study that described a real-life entrepreneur. They gave the case to business-school students to rate on several factors. Half the students got the case with the name Heidi, and the other half got the same case with the name Howard. While the students rated both Heidi and Howard as competent, they rated Howard as a more appealing colleague, while Heidi was seen as “not the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”
A recent Gallup survey confirmed that both women and men prefer a male boss. While the percentage who prefer a female boss has increased since 1953 when Gallup began asking this question, women would still choose a male (40 percent) over a female (27 percent) boss by a 13-percent margin. If almost half of the women in the workforce do not want to be led by women, this could pose a significant challenge for us as female leaders.
The topic of the double bind facing female bosses raised a lot of hackles among a group of women participating in this study in Spain. When one of the participants, Graciella, a financial services manager in her forties, described her approach to being a boss, an uproar erupted from the group. Graciella explained, “If I’m the manager, I don’t care about your personal problems—whether you are a woman or a man. I don’t want to be involved in your life. It’s not part of my job.” The objections were loud from the women in the group, and a lively discussion ensued about how being friendly makes it easier to get things done at work and having good relationships creates a better work environment. When Graciella was asked to say more about her professional experience, she acknowledged that female staff don’t stay long on her teams and that she had been told she was hard to work for—although she had never thought about the possibility that female staff had different expectations of her than of her male colleagues.