‘Women Systematically Underestimate Their Own Abilities’

A while back, I read The New Yorker profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and one of the top female technology executives in the world. In the piece, Sandberg bemoaned the low numbers of women in the upper echelons of business. At the time, the sentiment irked me, in two ways.

  • First, the article kind of glossed over the fact that there are increasing amounts of women in positions of power, maybe just not in the high-paid tech sector. And it’s been this way for decades — I grew up in a city where most of my teachers were female, my principals were all female, the mayor was female and my state’s governor was female. After college, most of my managers have been female, from my direct editor all the way up to CEO (I’m  looking at you Janet Robinson).
  • Second, why should women want to be executives? Sure, the pay may be good — some would say obscene (I’m again looking at you Janet Robinson) — but the lifestyle? Meh. Take it or leave it. It was created by and for men….ever watch Mad Men? Wall Street? What good comes from that? This is an idea echoed by Penelope Trunk, who says women simply don’t aspire to be like Sandberg, although Trunk’s premise is more that women value family life more than men, and my premise is more that my life is too short to work 100 hours a week, at least when working means sitting at a computer and not photographing seals or eating chiles en nogada.

But then I watched Sandberg’s TED conference talk this week. And while I didn’t feel moved to become an executive (and may never), I did start to realize she’s at least partially correct about why women aren’t running more companies. One line in particular made me wince.

“Women,” Sandberg said, “systematically underestimate their own abilities.”

Looking back at my own career, this has been my repeated problem. Sandberg, in her research, no doubt read Clay Shirky’s A Rant About Women, which is a male professor’s perspective on witnessing this play out in real life, and both of them are dead-on about this sad little difference between the sexes.

I wish I could say “no more,” that I’m going to slay this self-deprecating beast and risk letting the world call me a success-hungry bitch (as Sandberg notes in her speech, this is the risk women take, as “success” and “likability” are only positively correlated for men, not women).

But no, I don’t think that will happen, at least not yet. For now, I’m simply trying to make myself more conscious of the kind of thinking that can hold women back sometimes. After all, even if I don’t want to be CEO, it’d be nice to offered the job. Because I don’t suck, but try telling that to me.

Thanks to Sara Rosso for forcing me to look inward.

(Also, for an interesting read on the digital navel-gazing love fest that is TED, see: Those Fabulous Confabs)

5 thoughts on “‘Women Systematically Underestimate Their Own Abilities’

  1. Edward Korompai says:

    She makes some valid points. In my own life I am always very wary, and routinely ignore, any advice from any kind of business leader. And this also extends to America’s most recently canonized business Saint: Steve Jobs. I treat them a bit like actors, which at that level of business they basically are actors for the company. They make good points, but their lives’ realities are too different than mine as far as values and focus. So I seek my counsel elsewhere.

  2. doranyc says:

    Joy, I needed to hear this ahead of an important planning meeting I have this Saturday. There are many internal voices of mine that need to be smacked down right now. You have no idea. THANK YOU.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s