Therese Huston has written an important new book: How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices. The book combines her own research with a comprehensive review of literature on gender differences in decision making. Some of her findings disprove stereotypes about gender differences, while others confirm and explain differences in decision making between women and men. To address these differences, Huston offers decision-making strategies for women. She notes, “Books with advice on decision making for men can be terrible for women. . . . Women need their own playbook.” This is the best playbook on decision making for women I have seen. Here are some of the findings and strategies that stood out for me.
Some Challenges for WomenHuston notes these and other challenges that women face as decision makers in organizations:
- Women face underlying sexist assumptions that they can’t be trusted to make big decisions. A man only has to worry about making a judgment when making a big decision, while a woman has to worry about making the judgment and being judged because her judgment will be questioned.
- If a man makes one pivotal decision for his organization, it will carry him a long time. Williams and Dempsey note that women, on the other hand, experience the “prove it again bias” as their good decisions are considered to be a fluke.
- Women’s decision making is also impacted by something Huston calls “stereotype threat,” or the fear of living up to negative expectations that others have of your group. This fear can create distraction and anxiety for women that can result in hesitation and underperformance. I experienced stereotype threat as a young woman when my high school guidance counselor told me, “Girls are not good in math.” I became terrified of math and avoided it throughout college, thereby limiting my career options in significant ways. I later discovered that I am actually quite good in math, but my anxiety and hesitation from this stereotype threat limited my options. Women may avoid leadership positions and fear decision making for similar reasons.
Some Ways Women and Men are Equal as Decision MakersHuston debunks a number of myths and stereotypes about men’s and women’s decision-making abilities:
- Although many people believe that men are more decisive than women, scientists find that men and women struggle with their options equally.
- Stereotypes suggest that women make decisions intuitively while men make decisions analytically. There is, in fact, no such term as “men’s intuition.” However, Huston reports that men get gut feelings about decisions as often as women, and women are as analytical—perhaps more so—than men in decision making because they know their decisions will be questioned and their case must be solid.
- Men can read emotions and body language—both important sources of data for decision making—as well as women, but they don’t feel as motivated do so. Women are more motivated to pay attention to nonverbal cues as a self-protection skill because they have less power.
Differences in Risk TakingAlthough men and women are equally skilled decision makers, significant differences exist between women and men in making risky decisions. Huston reports:
- Risk taking is a skill, not a personality trait, and boys get more encouragement to practice this skill than do girls.
- Several studies show that men overestimate their knowledge and abilities while women underestimate theirs. Overconfidence has been shown to be a major obstacle to smart decisions. Women’s more accurate self-assessment means fewer errors in judgment.
- Neuroscience has uncovered evidence that the spike in cortisol levels produced by stress has the opposite effect on men’s and women’s approaches to risky decisions. The most stressed-out men pursue options that have big costs and a small chance of big benefits, while the most stressed-out women go for the smaller, more guaranteed success.
Effective Decision-Making Strategies for WomenHuston offers practical strategies for women at the end of each chapter. Here are some that I found particularly thought-provoking and useful:
- Use your intuition, an important source of data, as a starting point in your decision-making process—but only trust it up to a point. Then hunt down the data to ground your decision before you make it. Don’t rely on intuition alone.
- When you are talking about your successes in a job interview, draw attention to the successful risks you have taken. This will help counteract the stereotype that women are not decisive and do not take risks.
- Keep your confidence dialed down when making a decision to ensure it is grounded and smart. Then dial your confidence up when you need to sell your decisions to others.