Being more like a man at work doesn’t work for women

Many books, think pieces and hot takes have been produced to tell women what they’re doing wrong when it comes to getting ahead in their careers, especially those of us in STEM careers. More often than not, the advice given (often by men) is to act more like men. Women in corporate (US) America understand this to be hollow guidance. The path to navigate the minefield of working while a woman means nodding and smiling while being given worthless advice, and learning the hard way what works.

The best study I’ve seen on this comes from, called The Myth of the Ideal Worker, published in 2011.

The Myth of the Ideal Worker: Does Doing All the Right Things Really Get Women Ahead?, tackles persistent myths about the gender gap. Career advancement strategies used by women and men were compared to determine if using the same strategies ultimately leads to the same career outcomes. Findings revealed that:

  • Men benefited more from adopting proactive strategies.
  • When women did all the things they have been told will help them get ahead—using the same tactics as men—they still advanced less than their male counterparts and had slower pay growth.

The summary download available at the Catalyst site explains four types of approaches workers use in advancing their careers. They measured women and men’s advancement within the same approach, and across all approaches.  The results?

  • Doing “All the Right Things” Helped Men—But Not Women—Advance Further and Faster
  • Additionally, Men Advanced Further Than Women Across All Other Strategy Profiles
  • Men’s Compensation Also Grew Faster Than Women’s, Regardless of Strategies Used

This also reminds me of other studies that show the men are hired and promoted for their potential, while women advance on their track record. Men also tend to overestimate their own capabilities, and believe they should be paid more for those imagined abilities than they are, while women are more likely to only pursue opportunities where they are fully (or over-)qualified.

If we look to the source of these tendencies, it points to how girls and boys are socialized. Girls are socialized to strive for perfection, while boys are encouraged to take risks and be unafraid of failure.  This plays out in schooling environments, where girls are less likely to answer questions in class unless they’re 100% sure they’re correct, and boys will just shout down interrupt with wrong answers or their own opinions. This behavior persists through to the college level.

This is teaching girls and women that we’re not likely to be heard, we’ll be judged harshly for any misstep or risk that doesn’t yield perfectly positive results, and that mediocre men will likely be advanced over hardworking women. Women tend to have a pessimistic outlook on their advancement and compensation, according to one study, but I personally think this is women accurately assessing their chances in the workplace.  Women’s lowered expectations means we have higher job satisfaction because we dare not dream of better outcomes, given the realities we face.

So what can we do to change these outcomes, since continuing to try the same tactics and hope for better results is insanity?

  • Teach girls bravery, not perfection
  • Making our achievements known, and seeking feedback and credit
  • Proactively networking with influential people
  • Pursuing high-profile projects where our achievements can shine

If you have other ideas for effective alternate strategies women in STEM jobs can use to improve their career advancement goals, please share!

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