Warren Buffett is an iconic American business magnate and investor. He is widely known for his philanthropic activities and involvement with the Gates Foundation. He often relates the story that when he was growing up, his sisters were even smarter than he was, they just didn’t have equal opportunities for women. At the recent White House Summit on Women, Buffett spoke on a panel moderated by Dina Habib Powell, the head of impact investing for Goldman Sachs. When asked why he considers himself “bullish” on women’s issues, Buffett said he sees female involvement in the economy as key to the country’s prosperity. Without financially empowering women, he continued, America would be effectively “playing with one hand tied behind its back.”
Holding Women Back
We must become aware of the ways in which we are unconsciously holding women back to make these critical changes. Studies show that women typically pay a “social penalty” for being confident if they are not overly nice. The traits of “success and likability” are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women. In a Columbia Business School study, various groups of students were given the same case study with a profile of a venture capitalist. The cases held one single difference – the venture capitalist’s gender. Some profiles were labeled with the name “Heidi” and others had the name “Howard.” Howard was described as likable while Heidi was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.” These false and limiting perceptions box a woman into the awkward double standard that if she is competent, she doesn’t seem nice enough, but if she is viewed as really nice she is likely considered less competent. This can have an enormous impact on a woman’s career.
Identifying the Quagmire
At LeanInTogether.org the quagmire and the solution are described this way:
Ask yourself: Who are you more likely to support and promote, the man with high marks across the board or the woman who has equally high marks but is just not as well liked. This bias often surfaces in the way women are described, both in passing and in performance reviews. When a woman asserts herself – for example, by speaking in a direct style or promoting her ideas – she is often called “aggressive,” “ambitious” or “out for herself.” When a man does the same, he is seen as “confident and strong.”
The Solution is a two-fold inquiry: Listen for the language of the likeability penalty, including that a woman is “political” or “pushy.” 1) When you hear biased language, request a specific example of what the woman did; and 2) then ask, “Would you have the same reaction if a man did the same thing?” In many cases, the answer will be no. We can all fall into these bias traps, so think carefully about your own responses to female co-workers.
Recognizing The Penalties
For awareness to create fairness, we must recognize the negative biases and penalties that are exercised against women routinely and be willing to point them out. At Adweek’s inaugural Women in Media event, Cindy Gallop said: “The single most important change women can make is to speak up and to do something.”
At the end of the day, it comes down to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you wish to be treated. And, evaluate women’s competence in the same way you do men’s.
Want to read up on more of the Myths that women need to break, check out supporting other women in their transformation in the myth of competition.