As one more reminder why you see more suits than skirts in the corporate suites, there’s this: women don’t exaggerate nearly enough. According to a recent study out of Columbia University Business School, one reason why men are more likely to succeed in business is because they’re much better braggers. Men are much more likely to puff up their accomplishments. Women, not so much.
According to Columbia Professor Ernesto Reuben, one of the study’s authors, “men may have a much easier time ‘faking it’ due to natural overconfidence in their performance”:
Part of the persistent gender gap in leadership at firms can be attributed to discrimination. However, most investigations in this area focus on clear-cut instances of discrimination, in which a woman might not be selected for a position or promotion in a male-dominated firm where men either don’t like working with women, feel threatened by women, or believe that women are not as good in a given role or industry. But Reuben suggests that the underlying causes of such selection issues may go beyond simple conscious discrimination.
“We know that there are differences in the way men and women think of themselves and react to incentives,” Reuben says. “That led us to ask what other forces could be creating gender differences than bald out-and-out discrimination.”
What they found was that those other forces had to do with “honest” exaggeration. In one experiment, MBA students were asked to complete some math problems, then a year later, were asked to recall how well they did. Both the men and the women inflated their scores — but to a different degree. Then men rated themselves about 30 percent higher. The women, only about 15 percent. Next, the researchers upped the ante by dividing participants into groups, and asking them to choose a leader to represent them in a math contest, based on how the participants thought they’d do. In groups where the leader was given a cash incentive, both men and women exaggerated how well they thought they’d do. But those who exaggerated the most, were usually rewarded for it:
When participants had an incentive to lie, they lied more, and the incidence of lying increased as the monetary award for being chosen as leader increased. But while women kept pace with men on how frequently they lied, women did not exaggerate their performance to the same degree, and it cost them: women were selected 1/3 less often than their abilities would otherwise indicate. In other words, while there is no gender differential when it comes to lying, there is a significant gender differential when it comes to “honest” overconfidence: the main difference in women not being selected as leaders appears to be attributable to men’s overconfidence in their abilities.
Something to think about, right? To be sure, there are a number of reasons why women keep bumping up against the glass ceiling — from overt discrimination in the workplace to the so-called maternal wall. As we point out in Undecided, studies show that a female employee who wears her mom-hood on her sleeve is likely to be perceived as a flight risk. We also tend to lose the confidence game, sometimes because we fear we won’t fit in.
But the ways in which we’ve learned to communicate plays a part as well. When it comes to salary, we are less likely to negotiate. We’re more likely to give credit to others than ourselves. We tend to downplay our achievements, even to the point of deflecting compliments. We’ve learned early on that “nice” girls don’t brag. Or speak up. And where do es that get us? As we noted before,
It’s a classic double bind — cue Miranda Priestly once again: Women who are assertive score low on the likability scale. We’re seen as arrogant, or worse yet, ambitious. But if we don’t speak up, we get paid less. All of which is infuriating, [communication scholar Laura] Ellingson tells us. “They tell women not to ‘toot their own horns’ from infancy on, leading us to try hard NOT to stand out, and then they ask why we don’t advocate better for ourselves.”
But back to that Columbia study. In a riff in a recent special section of the Sun Times, writer Vickie Milazzo, author of Wicked Success Is Inside Every Woman, says that women need “to act (and) think more like men. Her advice?
“Don’t let anyone-including yourself-forget just how much you’re bringing to the table,” says Milazzo. “The men certainly won’t. Practice talking about your achievements. Be proud of your strengths and abilities and learn to compellingly express them to others. When you position yourself in an appealing way, you’ll unleash success.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself. Wait a minute… Yes, dammit, I could!