Meet Mary and John
They are both 23, they are alike in many ways. They achieved the same grades at school, graduated with the same degree and they both had parents who encouraged them to be who they wanted to be.
Mary and John start working at the same company on the same day at the same level. They are both junior executives.
And from that day onwards…the differences between Mary and John, which up to now appeared quite insignificant, are about to become much bigger.
And those differences will mean that john is ten times more likely to make it to that cool corner office at the top of the company. And Mary is more likely to have opted out of the corporate race altogether.
If getting to the top was like a game of snakes and ladders, then the dice would be loaded in John’s favour. He will climb the ladders with ease while Mary will get all the snakes.
So here’s what happens.
Mary quickly sees things differently to John. The number of women and men at Mary and John’s level is about the same. But by the end of her first day it’s obvious that as you go up each floor of the company there are less and less women and more and more men and at the very top there is just one lone woman who has got to where Mary wants to be. The odds aren’t good.
And while John is settling in well, having a bit of banter with his bosses and chatting about rugby and golf with the movers and shakers Mary sticks to the girls. She doesn’t know much about rugby or golf, or cars or anything really that might break the ice with the bosses.
The first team building day arrives and her boss has organised a day of sports and team pursuits, white water rafting, archery, tug of war, wall climbing and tag racing. John loves the day, he meets lots of important guys in the company, it’s a day of fun, laughter and winning. Mary doesn’t do well. She hates sport and she doesn’t know how to break into the backslapping comradery between the guys. John is beginning to get noticed and Mary is beginning to wonder if she has any future in the company.
Two years go by. Mary and John have been on a number of training days the company has organised. Their boss has tested them equally on key projects. A vacancy has arisen as team leader. They are both almost ready to take the next step. John throws his hat in the ring immediately even though he hasn’t done the team leadership programme. Mary has done the programme but she doesn’t feel she is ready yet for the challenge. John says: “I’ll wing it”. Mary makes a list of pros and cons. John gets the job and Mary is cross with herself for not going for it. She worries about that for weeks. What would her boss think about her not going for it? Would he have given it to her anyway? She would probably look stupid if she did go for it and didn’t get it. She’d be embarrassed. But her boss just wonders why Mary didn’t feel ready for the step up. He thinks she may not have what it takes. He’d never say it out loud but he secretly thinks Mary might want to start a family and not take on too much responsibility. His own wife Amy did just that so he understands.
Mary has to wait another year before another vacancy arrives. She goes for the job this time and she gets it. She now manages a team of ten junior executives. She’s pleased and keen to do well. She arrives early, leaves late and delivers on all of her targets. She is very focussed on teamwork, she’s quick to give credit where it’s due and she’s a good listener. Often she thinks that she’s a bit too good at listening to all the woes of the team. But she’s proud of the fact that her harmonious team usually reaches a consensus around work projects (something some of the other teams struggle with). She likes clarity and the discipline of deadlines.
However, the weekly team leader meetings with her boss are not going so well. There are 12 team leaders and most of them are men. She can’t figure out where she’s going wrong. She prepares well for the meeting, always has the best presentation, and she sticks to the point. But her boss never really notices her efforts. He’s usually laughing and joking with the guys before the meeting and the conversation tapers off when she walks into the boardroom. And sometimes she feels that most of the important stuff is happening somewhere else. The guys will pepper their reports and recommendations with anecdotes like: “do you remember the chat we had on the golf course last Saturday” or: “you know the guy we met when we went for a pint on Friday”. Sometimes these chats relate to areas that she is working on and she feels foolish that she doesn’t know what’s happening. When she raises it with her boss he says why can’t she be more like John and mingle a bit. She can tell her boss switches off when she’s talking because he starts writing and sometimes he interrupts to remind someone about something and then says: “sorry you were saying?”. She hates that most of all. Why can’t her boss see all the good work she is doing. John leaves early, chats with the guys half the time and yet her boss sings his praises and seems to know everything he’s done well that week.
She’s not good at talking up in the room, she sticks to her own bit and when the guys are all laughing at some in-joke she laughs too. One day her boss asks for a volunteer to do a big project working across all the teams and other departments. She wants to do it but is afraid to put her hand up in the room. John jumps at the chance. Her boss asks her directly if she would consider it. He thinks she’s more than able. But she tells him she would be worried that her own work might suffer if she took on such a big challenge like that and that she might not perform well at either if she was stretched too thin. He’s a bit disappointed but respects her view. She lies awake all night going over that conversation again and again and wishing she had said something different. Too late now.
A few months pass and her boss moves to another department. He’s already identified John as his successor. Mary is not on the list. So now John is her boss.
The story of Mary and John could continue but I think you know where it will end. There are some obstacles that Mary can do nothing about but some of the biggest blocks are entirely within her power to overcome. If only she knew how.
So let’s go back to those differences between John and Mary. The ones that appeared so small in school and college and which grew and grew and grew when Mary started working for the company.
Yes, there is the obvious difference, Mary is a girl and John is a boy.
But if you asked the cleverest neuroscientists to tell you the difference between the brain of Mary and the brain of john they would find it hard to tell them apart. If you piled up all the articles, studies, opinion and observations about the difference between women and men it would be miles and miles high. But if you analysed them and decluttered the pile separating out the conjecture and observations from the proven difference between women and men, the science, you would find less than a handful. In fact, there are only four. But from those four key differences flows all of the symptoms Mary experienced and her boss observed.
Let’s start with the brain.
The great thing about evolution is that as we as humans progress if we no longer need something mother nature gets rid of it over time. For instance, about 30% of people born today don’t have wisdom teeth. We don’t need them anymore. And we don’t need the expense and pain of having them removed.
Why is that important? Because one important difference between the brains of women and men was essential to the survival of our ancestors. A tiny bit of geeky stuff will explain it better.
- The first difference is that women have a larger anterior cingulate cortex otherwise known as the worrywart center of the brain – it helps us see problems and balance options. While the men went off hunting the women kept watch. From her vantage point on the high ground she scanned the horizon for threats and dangers. Very useful if a big lion is lurking in the bush. Not so useful when it evolves into an internal danger stranger radar that means women have an ability to see problems and obstacles ahead and scan for things that could go wrong. They are prone to make lists, pros and cons, those dangers often mean then don’t take that risk. Men don’t see things that way because that bit of their brain is less developed.
- If you were to do an MRI scan the second difference in Mary’s brain is that she activates her amygdalae otherwise called the rumination centre more often than John when something goes wrong. The scientists describe it as women being more likely to ‘form strong emotional memories of negative events’. And from this nugget stems a flow of behavioural studies that observe this in practice. Mary dwells on things for a lot longer than John. She worries about something that happened, a perceived slight, how people view her, whether she did the right thing. The rumination centre and the worrywart centre hold Mary back. It makes her less confident and more fearful of risks. It also adds to her stress levels and causes her to lose focus.
But, these differences lead to a patterns of behaviour that are also good but often now valued in corporate life. All companies should be constantly scanning the horizon for risks, reviewing why things go wrong and learning from failure.
- The third difference between Mary and John is that they used different types of fuel. Mary is fuelled by oestrogen which means she is great at bonding, a good team player, she’s good at communicating and she has a tendency to discourage conflict and risky behaviour. These are great skills if you’re a mother and you want your children to get along and stay out of trouble. But not so great in the corporate world where being a great team player who wants everyone to get along will only get you so far. John on the other hand is fuelled by testosterone – ten times more than Mary. So he is hard wired for speed, power, to take risks and be competitive. His fuel propels him forward and his instinct is to win. Conflict comes with the territory, he is comfortable with it and often encourages it. These are great attributes in the corporate world, not necessarily because they are invaluable but because they tend to be rewarded. A group of scientists tested the testosterone levels of stock brokers at the start of the day’s trading and unsurprisingly discovered that when testosterone levels are high the men took riskier trades. And if those trades paid off, leading to an above average bonus, testosterone levels were increased by as much as 20%. The male hormone pushes men forward and rewards them when they are successful with a further boost. These patterns of behavior are good and bad for an organization. An over reliance on risk-taking behavior at a senior level got many companies into hot water when the recession hit.
- And so to the final bit of science around what separates Mary and John. These studies are all to do with what happens when boys and girls go to school. Girls are better behaved than boys. It sounds obvious because it is so apparent. But while boys are charging around the playground and knocking lumps out of each other girls learn that being neat and quiet and diligent is how to earn praise and rewards. Girls are sociable, they can concentrate for longer and have better verbal and fine-motor skills. As Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck observed: “If life were one long grade school, women would be the undisputed rulers of the world”. Mary strives for perfection and is diligent while John has more a that’ll do approach and he’s ok bragging about his achievements.
Here’s what we know.
Male and female brains are vastly more alike than they are different. But there are differences in structure and chemistry
In women the rumination center lights up more readily when something bad happens, the worrywart center is bigger and leads to a tendency to scan ahead for problems, oestrogen fuels behaviours that are good but not always rewarded and girls’ development edge at school lays down a drive for perfection and diligence.
There are other consequences of those differences that can hinder a woman’s progress in the corporate world.
While lots of research has been spent unearthing the different behaviours of women and men this is a young field of study and often the results don’t tally. What is generally agreed on is the following.
Women are less likely to share their opinions in a group of people. They are more likely to apologize for things that aren’t their fault. They are more likely to take criticism personally. Women are less likely to consider themselves competent in their work. Lots of studies show that they generally underestimate their abilities, women predict they’ll do worse at tests than they do. The don’t consider themselves as ready for promotions as men do even when they are.
The Institute of Leadership and Management in the UK surveyed managers to ascertain how confident they feel in their professions, half the female respondents reported self-doubt about their job performance and careers, compared with fewer than a third of the men. Various studies show women are less likely to ask for a raise. Linda Babcock, professor of economics, Carnegie Mellon University and author of Women Don’t Ask revealed that men initiate salary negotiations four times as often as women do. And when women do negotiate, they ask for 30 percent less money than men. Cornell psychologist David Dunning and Washington State University psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger did a study on the relationship between female confidence and competence and discovered that men overestimate their abilities and performance, and women underestimate both. And importantly their performances do not differ in quality
A review of personnel records found that women working at Hewlett-Packard applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.
The upshot is that all four of these key difference between Mary and John create good and bad patterns of behavior. Companies need balance. There is however one consequence of those differences that is the key to what holds women back. And that’s Confidence. It matters as much and sometimes more than competence. It isn’t about telling women they’re great it’s about triggering that ignition in their brain which gives them the self-assurance to take that leap and translate their thoughts into action.
Thankfully there is A Fix.
Planet Woman holds the key to unlocking that potential. That is our sole purpose. This is a space that speaks the language of women. Real women who are at various stages of the corporate journey. The way to learn is to do. We want to share real life examples and stories from women who have overcome those obstacles to help women be everything they dreamed they would be.
There are many things that will hold Mary back as she charts that course towards the corner office on the top floor. But one of them shouldn’t be her.