Put aside preconceptions about women wilting under pressure, writes Sharon Ní Chonchúir.
IMAGINE a woman trying to decide what to wear for work in the morning.
Can you see her as she dithers between one outfit and another? Or picture her as she makes up her mind, only to change it once again?
Now imagine that same scene with a man in the starring role. Does he act in the same way, humming and hawing over his options? Or does he make up his mind decisively and with confidence?
For generations, we’ve been told that men and women approach decision-making differently.
We’ve been told that women are indecisive and some have suggested that this may explain why they haven’t succeeded in the cut-and-thrust world of business and senior management.
A new book suggests otherwise.
How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and Why it Matters by Therese Huston, a cognitive psychologist from Seattle University, looks at research into the differences between the ways that men and women make decisions and arrives at the conclusion that women may, in some ways, be better at it than men.
“Most of the stereotypes about women as decision-makers — that women become emotional under pressure or that they are less decisive than men — aren’t true,” says Huston.
“The research shows that having a greater number of women in the room when a crucial decision is being made is not only better for women, it’s better for the decision. And that’s better for everyone.”
The main problem that women face in regards to their decision-making is the fact that society often presumes that they are not very good at it.
According to research uncovered by Huston, women’s decisions are often scrutinised more than men’s.
One of the examples she gives is that of Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo.
In 2013, Mayer announced that the company was ending its full-time work-from-home policy, prompting scores of newspaper articles that questioned her decision.
A week later, another CEO, Hubert Joly of Best Buy, announced the same thing and little was said.
“For making the same judgement call, a male CEO drew some sidelong glances but a female CEO drew extensive scrutiny,” says Huston.
“We’re quick to question a woman’s judgement but inclined to accept a man’s. Men and women don’t have to act differently for us to see them differently.”
The author believes that this disparity in how we view the decision-making abilities of men and women may be influencing women’s progress in the workplace.
There are women such as Sheryl Sandberg, Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, and Theresa May in positions of power but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.
“Of the 195 independent countries in the world in 2015, only 11.2% were run by women. Of the 500 largest companies in the US and the top 100 in Britain, only 15% were headed by women.
"When you look at Standard and Poor’s 1500 Index, there are more CEOs called John than there are females of any name.”
This gender gap holds true in Ireland. Only 35 of our 158 Dáil deputies are women.
In the higher education sector, where the overall academic staff ratio of men to women is roughly 50/50, less than a third of senior academic posts are held by women.
The figures are even more startling in the business sector. Women make up just 10.5% of board members in the largest publicly-listed companies in Ireland.
Huston doesn’t think any of this is down to a lack of ambition.
She cites a 2013 survey of more than 1,400 executives which found that women wanted the top positions as much as men.
Five in six said they wanted to be promoted to the next level while only 74% of the men did.
Nor does she think it’s because women are seen as less intelligent.
She backs this up with a Pew Research Center survey of 2,800 Americans which found that 86% of people thought men and women were equally intelligent.
Another 9% thought women had the upper hand in the intelligence stakes.
If it isn’t a lack of ambition or intelligence, Huston is convinced that what’s holding women back is the fact that their decisions are respected less than men’s.
In her book, she argues that this shouldn’t be the case.
Men and women may not make decisions in the same way but she believes that, in many instances, women’s decision-making processes may lead to better outcomes.
Women are more collaborative in their approach than men and are more likely to ask for advice from others.
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s ever been in a car with a man who is refusing to stop to ask for directions even though it’s clear that he’s hopelessly lost.
Women are also less likely to take risks than men, particularly when faced with new situations or during times of stress.
Huston refers to an experiment carried out at the North American Bridge Championship.
During the game itself, men and women performed equally, with no difference in risk-taking. But when they were pulled aside at lunchtime and taught a game where they could gamble up to $250, men risked 70% more money than women did.
She also points to research by neuroscientists Mara Mather and Nicole R Lighthall. They set up a virtual gambling game where men and women could win money by inflating virtual balloons.
Every step of the way, they were asked whether they wanted to cash out and bank their money or risk losing all they had accumulated for the chance of winning even larger sums.
Men and women remained the same when relaxed but when stress was added to the mix — by placing their hands in ice-cold water for three minutes — their reactions differed.
Stressed women gambled less than the relaxed women, taking sure wins over higher risks, while stressed men did the opposite, gambling up to 50% more before calling it quits.
“The stress hormone cortisol seems to have opposite effects in men and women,” says Huston.
“Men become almost risk-hungry, laser-focused on big rewards. Women become calmer and more strategic, looking for smaller but surer successes.”
Instead of distrusting women to make the big decisions in the boardroom, Huston believes that the research supports the case for more women at higher positions in business.
In fact, she claims that the presence of more female managers might have softened, if not averted, the financial crash of 2007.
The statistics back up her claim. Credit Suisse examined almost 2,400 firms in the years between 2005 and 2011, finding that large firms with at least one woman on the board beat the stock prices of comparable companies with all-male boards by 26%.
Huston hopes that the time has come for society to revisit the double standards it has when it comes to the decision-making powers of men and women.
She believes it would be better for women, for business, and for society in general if we all trusted women’s decisions more.
However, this won’t happen unless business leaders give more women a chance in their companies and unless women gain the confidence they need to trust their decision-making skills in the future.
She hopes her research will help to achieve this.
“This book is an invitation and a toolkit for women who want to make stronger, smarter decisions in a world that still whispers that they can’t,” she says.
“Women often have better judgement than they realise and all they need is a little reminder of how wise they really are.”
How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and Why it Matters by Therese Huston is published by Oneworld and costs €17.99
Top tips for smart decisions
1: Rename your feelings. If you’re feeling anxious about a decision, tell yourself that it’s not stress but excitement. The body experiences these emotions in the same way but the mind processes them differently. Anxiety is negative while excitement is positive.
2: When contemplating risk, apply the 10-10-10 rule. Ask yourself what the consequences might be in 10 hours, 10 months, or 10 years. Quitting your job will certainly feel overwhelming in 10 hours but it’s likely to elicit completely different feelings in 10 months or 10 years.
3: Give yourself three options to choose from. We often only give ourselves two options, leading to an either/or mentality. Having several options can expand perspective and lead to more satisfying long-term decisions.
4: Don’t be afraid to collaborate and ask for input from others.
5: Remember that it’s ultimately your decision. Make it clear you’re not being indecisive and that you remain in charge. This could be as simple as saying ‘let’s have a meeting on Monday to discuss our options and I’ll decide what’s best on Tuesday’.
Everyone feels as though they have contributed and their input is valued but the buck still stops with you.
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