Homaira Kabir
Own your worth. Make your mark.

Why Women Avoid Taking Risks At Work – And What To Do About It

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This article first appeared on Forbes

My daughter has just started her first job in business consulting. Its barely been a week, but she’s already been inculcated with the belief that women do not take enough risks. And this in an environment with systemic male-preferential norms and a largely male-dominated client base.

Of course, this idea is not part of some nefarious male plot against women. In fact, it’s one that’s largely propagated by women as well meant advice towards greater courage. But I’m not so sure whether adding to the long list of things we are not “good enough at” is quite the way to go. When we inundate ourselves, and others, with examples of women who avoid asking for the pay, positions and projects they want, and seep ourselves deep in stories of those who shy away from speaking up at meetings for fear of sounding incompetent, we perpetuate a myth that is running rampant in our society.

I’ve been working with women for over a decade, helping them step forward with the best of themselves in all areas of their lives. And rare has been the time when I haven’t been in awe of the raw courage of the feminine spirit, the sheer determination with which they can pursue goals that are important to them, and the even stronger heart that’s needed to sit with what must be accepted and cannot be changed.

Courage, Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener reveals in his book the Courage Quotient, is more about managing fear than not feeling it. And women are often the unsung heroes who feel afraid for their children, their families, the future, and yet stay grounded and hold the family fort together despite domestic and economic uncertainties.

It’s true that this courage does not always translate into risk-taking at work. The reason may partly be that women are often operating among male preferential norms that disadvantage them. Women are also up against subconscious biases that are more difficult to address, such as the “double bind” of likeability and competence.

But what we also forget is that women are new comers in the workforce. We are in the process of adapting to a new identity and learning to expand the self-view that has been handed down to us through the ages. We are still becoming used to the fact that we are no longer only mothers, but working mothers, and grappling with the guilt and resentment that often comes with it. And this is not a process that will happen overnight, much as we’d like it to, in our age of instant gratification.

Instead, it’ll take time as we transition into what Harvard professor Robert Kegan calls a “self-authoring mind” as part of his Constructive-Developmental theory. This higher stage of consciousness requires us to own our worth and our voice so we can pursue a purpose that’s grounded in our core values and capabilities. And what we need from each other is not reminders of our apparent lack of courage, but the motivation to tap into the courage that lies within each one of us.

So here’s the work that’s cut out for us:

Celebrate Stories of Courage

We need to get better at celebrating our female heroes, past and present. Because women have been paragons of grit across the centuries and in all areas of life. There are the Eleanor Roosevelts of the world, and the Sheryl Sandbergs. There are the Rosa Parks and the Mother Teresas. But there are also the everyday courageous women who look after children with special needs, who stand grounded through the long years of adolescent meltdowns, and who bring some semblance of normalcy in the midst of war and despair.

There are also women who’ve overcome deep fears that lead to addictive behaviors, and gone on to make a difference in the lives of others. And those who have left lucrative careers to step boldly into the unknown territory of childhood passions or a driving purpose. And the increasing population of those who rise again daringly once their children leave home to expand their wings and live the unlived parts of their lives. We need to hear their stories.

Build a Mental Library of Courage

We also need to get better at recognizing our own courage. Neuropsychologist Dr. Rick Hanson says that thanks to the negativity bias, the human brain is Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good. We tend to belittle our moments of courage instead of celebrating them, unaware that it’s in savoring them that we allow them to go down into the long term memory that spins the autobiographical story of our lives.

Unless we do so, we have little in our mental library of courage to sustain us when we’re called to take risks and rise up to challenges. What we have instead are entire novellas on the times we did not speak up, avoided an opportunity, or failed to have the tough conversation we needed to, compounded by dire scenarios of what may happen if we do. No wonder staying within our comfort zone makes perfect sense . . .

Build Grittiness at Work

Caroline Miller, executive coach and author of Getting Grit, talks about the need to build authentic grit if women are to rise to their highest potential and inspire others to do the same. She differentiates authentic grit from “faux grit” that is often a result of deep insecurities, and can lead to an obsession with perfection, the fear of failure and the drive to outdo others.  She has found that authentic grit goes beyond passion and persistence to also include virtues such as humility and patience and positive relationships.

As women we’re inclined toward these virtues, except that we’re loath to own them given the current male cultures within most workplaces. The world needs feminine strengths given the divisiveness, uncertainty and turbulence in today’s world.

It’s time we owned our grit so we help ourselves step out of our comfort zones, and into our rightful place alongside men at every level within our organizations.

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