How Women Decide: A Book Review

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 Women

Huston 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 Makers

Huston 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 Taking

Although 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 Women

Huston 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.
Women receive a lot of mixed messages and are subject to many confusing double binds as leaders and decision makers. Huston offers an important playbook for how women can navigate these minefields and leverage their strengths. Reading this book will open your eyes and give you practical strategies for overcoming the challenges of making decisions as a woman. Let me know what you think.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Helpsg.  ]]>

Myths about Women’s Relationships

One of the most enduring myths about women is that women are mean to each other and undermine each other at work because of the Queen Bee Syndrome. Some women do have stories of sabotage by another woman at work. My research, published in my book, New Rules for Women: Revolutionizing the Way Women Work Together, found examples of this type of behavior between women but also identified ways that organizational systems set women up against each other. In fact, this behavior between women is no different than the same behavior reported by all marginalized groups. Token representation sets marginalized group members against each other to compete for limited opportunities in environments controlled by dominant group members. This behavior is not unique to women. The participants in my study also talked about the importance in their lives of women’s support. Several new studies, reported by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant in the New York Times, confirm that strong evidence exists to knock a hole in “the myth of the catty woman.” Here are some of the findings from those studies:

  • When researchers studied the top management of the Standard and Poor’s 1,500 companies over twenty years, they found that when the chief executive was male, it was unlikely that more than one woman would make it onto the senior management team. When the chief executive was a woman, more women joined senior management.
  • On corporate boards, women are less likely than men to be mentored or promoted to senior management positions—unless there is already a woman on the board.
  • In Latin American politics between 1999 and 2013, female presidents appointed 24 percent more female ministers to their cabinets.
  • When women negotiate on behalf of other women, they are able to boost their own salaries, too.
Yes, there are still some Queen Bees in organizations, particularly in male-dominated ones where opportunities for women’s advancement are limited. And men can also be quite mean to each other, though their behavior is often viewed as healthy competition and has no name equivalent to Queen Bee. Let’s look for ways to lift each other up and move past negative stereotypes about women. For the most part, these stereotypes are not true and definitely not the whole story. Here are some ways that women can continue to support each other:
  • By mentoring each other and being role models for supporting women.
  • By celebrating each other’s accomplishments, especially when they are overlooked.
  • By helping each other get heard in meetings.
  • By talking with each other and agreeing to compete and have each other’s backs. Yes—we really can do this!
If you have experiences supporting or being supported by women in your workplace, please share them in the comments section.     The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Startup Stock Photos.]]>

A Gender Gap for Female Attorneys: Where Are the Women?

Even though women make up close to half of all law school graduates, Shirley Leung of the Boston Globe notes that a gaping gender gap exists in the legal profession. She speculates that it could be the long hours required by large firms, the male-dominated culture of those firms, or outright discrimination, but “women drop out.” Leung reports that

  • Women comprise only 36 percent of the profession, according to the American Bar Association
  • Only 18 percent of women are equity partners at the largest firms
  • Women earn only 80 percent of the typical equity partner, according to a study done by the National Association of Women Lawyers
  • In high profile cases, women may be on the litigation teams, but they are relegated to roles behind the scenes and do not have speaking parts
Why does this last point matter? Leung cites Kim Dougherty, past president of the Women’s Bar Association, as noting, “getting more women to play big roles in courtrooms increases their chances for advancement, better pay, and opportunities to seek judgeships, which require lead trial experience.” Both Dougherty and Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge, suggest that judges can impact change from the bench by asking for more gender diversity among attorneys in courtroom proceedings. By setting such policy for their courtrooms, they can open opportunities for women to litigate in lead roles. The judge presiding over the Sumner Redstone case in Boston is a recent example of a judge who “walks his talk.” When only male attorneys spoke for both sides in the opening arguments of the trial, Judge George Phelan commented on the lack of female attorneys. His comment may result in participation by more women lawyers as this case moves forward, but Gertner notes that this will only matter if the women have real speaking roles rather than just cameo appearances. We need more judges like Phelan and Gertner who create fairness and opportunity for all lawyers in their courtrooms.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Activedia.]]>

Why We Need More Women on Corporate Boards

The wealth gap in the United States is outrageous, as highlighted previously by the Occupy Wall Street movement and progressive Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The pay of corporate CEOs continues to skyrocket, even when their companies underperform, while millions of citizens struggle to earn a living wage. The earnings of the middle class have been in steep decline, but corporate boards approve ever-increasing compensation packages for CEOs. I always assumed that if more women were on corporate boards, there would be a reversal of this trend—but new research shows the opposite. While past studies show that having more women on boards is good for company performance, Gretchen Morgenson of the New York Times reports that according to a new study, “companies with greater gender diversity on their boards paid their chief executives about 15 percent more than the compensation dispensed by companies with less diverse boards.” Why might this surprising trend be happening? Morgenson notes that while no one knows for sure, some experts point to the following possible causes:

  • Relatively few women (roughly 20 percent) serve on corporate boards, and those who do may feel pressured to go along with the “vote yes” culture of most boards in order to keep their seats.
  • The board compensation committee determines CEO pay, and women do not commonly serve on these committees, much less as chairwomen. Morgenson notes that last year, only two out of ten committee chairs of the most diverse boards were women.
  • The same women directors often hold multiple positions. Morgenson notes that nearly one-quarter of women directors at S&P 500 companies held multiple board seats compared to 19 percent of men. This group of women might be sought after because they do not rock the boat.
Many qualified women with C-Suite experience have not been tapped to serve on corporate boards. It seems likely that a larger proportion of women on boards will create space for more women to join together to resist the “culture of yes” and help bring CEO pay back to more reasonable levels. Token representation makes it difficult to speak out. Let’s keep pushing for more women on boards.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Benjamin Child.    ]]>

Tips for Retaining Women in Architecture

The field of architecture is hemorrhaging talent. While women make up 50 percent of many graduate architecture programs, they drop out of the profession in large numbers once they start working. What is going on? A recent study on diversity by the American Institute of Architects, reported by Robin Pogrebin in the New York Times, found a lack of gender equity in the profession that contributes to women leaving:

  • Women and minorities are less likely to be promoted to senior positions. When younger women do not have role models in senior roles, they may be discouraged and conclude that the opportunities for women are limited.
  • The percentage of female architects in the United States has been stagnant for more than ten years at about 25.7 percent.
  • African American women make up less than 0.3 percent of the industry. These low numbers make it especially challenging for African American women to be accepted or taken seriously in the profession when there are so few representatives of this demographic.
  • Female architects are considered intruders by contractors and construction workers at construction sites. Their presence is often resented or not respected.
  • Younger women with architecture degrees are often pushed into drafting and interior design roles, while men design the building structures and are given more face time with clients.
  • Many architectural firms lack support for work-life balance, making it necessary for many women to choose between becoming a parent and staying at the firm and in the profession.

Tips for Retaining Female Architects

According to Pogrebin, the American Institute of Architects study suggests that the following behavioral and policy changes can help create environments where female architects can be successful and will want to stay:
  • Treat female architects as professionals. For example, do not call a woman a “girl,” especially in client meetings. (Yes, this really happens.)
  • Make sure that the women on a project are introduced and not made invisible.
  • Don’t comment on women’s bodies or clothes more than you would on men’s.
  • Don’t apologize for swearing in front of female architects. They can probably take it or will tell you if they are offended, just as men would do.
  • Don’t interrupt or talk over women.
  • Promote women into positions of power and influence.
  • Provide overtime pay, flexible schedules and paid parental leave to support family life for both women and men.
These suggestions for behavior and policy changes will go a long way toward changing the culture of the architecture profession to one where women will feel they can utilize their talents without having to fight against unconscious and conscious bias that creates an unequal playing field.   The image in this post is in the public domain courtesy of Daniel Lozano Valdéz.]]>