Why Some Women Fear Taking Risks – And What We’re NOT Doing About It

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This article first appeared on Forbes

A paper published in Management Science showed that in a SAT-framed experiment, young women skipped nearly twice as many questions as men despite similar knowledge of the material. Even though attempting questions they were unsure about would lead to higher scores by a ratio of 1 right answer to 3 wrong ones, something still stopped them from taking the risk. When the penalty was removed, they answered every question and received equal scores.

Similarly, there’s the commonly known finding from a Hewlett Packard internal report showing that men apply for jobs when they meet about 60% of the qualifications, while women apply only if they meet 100% of them. Despite the potential for higher pay and position, some women would rather wait and bear the consequences than risk asking for a position they may not get – or that they may not succeed in. This impacts their career and wellbeing and disadvantages organizations that miss out on the hidden potential and expertise of their female employees.

Misguided Efforts

Most professional development programs address this fear of risk-taking through cognitive approaches that are based on logic and reason. “What’s the worst that can happen?” “What can you do to minimize the chances of it happening?” “How will you move on if it does?” While these approaches are effective for certain individuals, they do not get to the heart of what truly holds most women back.

Instead, it leads to the common frustration of many high achieving women who feel stuck: they know they are competent, but they can’t step up for opportunities. They know how to ask for what they deserve, yet would rather upgrade their skills than negotiate for a higher wage or position. Research shows self-silencing and playing small functions like a virus with mental, emotional and physical consequences, affecting both health and wellbeing, and driving many women to opt out of the workforce just when they’re ready to advance to more senior levels.

If we are to help our best potential advance from middle management to senior leadership, we need to understand what drives so many women to avoid risks at all costs.

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A Gap In Understanding

My research on women’s confidence in the workplace has shown that providing women with strategies to better manage failure isn’t enough. Doing so doesn’t get to the heart of what holds them back. Most women do not fear a bad mark or a financial loss. What they fear is the disapproval that comes from having made a bad decision. And this fear of rejection is often embedded deep in the psyche, emerging before the development of a cognitive system capable of making sense of their experiences.

Nor is it enough for them to know how to learn and grow from criticism. Implicit fears are often inaccessible to rational thought or analysis. Many high-achieving women don’t even know they exist precisely because of their successes thus far. As they advance in age and stage in career, they undoubtedly come face to face with the organizational and interpersonal challenges of work, and the double burden of two opposing sources of meaning in their lives – work and family.

Providing them with effective strategies to manage the subtle and overt criticism that becomes par for the course is essential. This is even more so in the today’s complex and volatile workplaces where doing substantive work of any kind isn’t without risk and uncertainty – and thus open to disapproval .

An Effective Strategy That Works

One well-researched strategy that addresses subconscious fears is Self-Compassion, whether it is through a guided daily meditation or by developing a “compassionate image” of a mentor in the mind. This compassionate image acts as an inner guide that helps women tune in to themselves with kindness and non-judgement instead of criticism or logic. After all, logic is merely “slave” to emotion, as Scottish philosopher David Hume remarked back in the 18th century.  Only when we take the emotional aspect out of the equation can we deal with the rational aspect of failure or criticism, learn from it and grow.

Organizations that aspire for real change towards diversity and inclusion need to expand the toolkit they offer women so it addresses their unique needs, challenges and aspirations. When women can manage the fears that stop them from taking risks, they can strive “securely” toward what truly matters to them. And for most competent and conscientious women, this is aligned with the wellbeing of the organizations they work in.

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