Next week’s Northern Powerhouse Conference has only 13 women amongst the 98 speakers and there’s been uproar. The conference organisers are saying ‘don’t look at us, look at the organisations who we asked to put forward their experts’. Commentators are concluding that it’s either that these organisations don’t have female experts to contribute to this agenda or they’re not choosing women as their best option to speak. However, there is a third option, which is that women aren’t putting themselves forward as the expert. The reality is likely to be a combination of all three factors.
There are three barriers to recognised expert status which stack-up to make one massive roadblock that few women succeed in negotiating. The first is that women really struggle to identify themselves with being an expert, despite compelling evidence that would more than justify that title to others. This is clearly fundamental – if you don’t know that you are an expert, then you are not going to put yourself forward as such.
The second and causally-related barrier is that many women feel very uncomfortable engaging in self-promotion – so even if you know you’re an expert you’re not going to highlight it at the critical moments.
And the third compounding issue is that if women don’t positively and actively promote themselves as an expert, they are likely to be overlooked when they are in either a gender-neutral or a male-dominated function, organisation or sector.
What’s really important to notice here is that all these three barriers can be broken down by women themselves, they don’t need to wait to some mythical time when they’ll be spotted and selected based on their merit alone
Why don’t women recognise their expert status?
‘What gets fired together, gets wired together,’ is a phrase from neuroscience which gets to the heart of the problem. This phrase explains things that we frequently associate together become accepted as facts, and the more we frequently make the same associations the more solid that fact or belief becomes and the more deeply and firmly it sits in our subconscious, being topped-up as more supporting evidence comes along. New associations that challenge a regularly reinforced and deeply embedded belief will make very little impression without significant regular reinforcement to reach and re-wire the original understanding.
Girls and boys grow up seeing a world where men run things; where men are turned to for decisions; where the voice of authority (beyond primary school) is predominantly male. The association is that there is a connection between being male and being capable of running the show. With this association comes the subconscious converse conclusion which is that there is something about being female which means you are less, or not, capable of running the show. There will be a man that can do it, say it, decide it, better than you.
Given that this ‘fact’ is reinforced – albeit through unconscious absorption – on a virtually daily basis, with scant evidence to break this deep association, women will struggle to feel they can identify themselves as an expert, let alone the expert. The prospect is like putting yourself in the way of a bomb that’s waiting to go off. It’s destined to end in disaster. It’s often termed ‘imposter syndrome’.
Focusing on solutions
Many children are now being taught to develop a ‘growth mind-set’. This simply means that when they face difficult stuff they need to hold on to the fact that we can all grow knowledge and skills – our set of capabilities are not pre-determined. Certain things may be difficult but with effort and applications we can progress. And this holds true for adults. It is cultural influence on our thinking, not genetics or gender, that masks the truth about what anyone can become.
Addressing this woeful lack of women at the top table and the conference table requires the firing together of information which helps us all – not just women – to learn to associate women with being experts. This can be as literal as providing that evidence and keeping it visible and accessible. Yale University have done just such a thing only this week, by renaming one of its colleges after Grace Murray Hopper a ‘trailblazing computer scientist, mathematician who gained her Yale PhD in 1934’. There is clear evidence that being reminded of a high-achieving role model boosts self esteem and performance and there are many simple ways of doing this.
A powerful approach with long-term impact is to separate an individual’s reality from unhelpful gendered assumptions. By this I mean taking time to look objectively at the evidence of an individual’s achievements and capability. What does this fact-based evidence demonstrate about that individual’s real status and level of expertise?
Making the final connection between great talent and opportunity is given a great boost by the advocacy of a senior sponsor. Not only can that person secure significant opportunities but they can also be a powerful source of perception-change both to the individual being mentored and to those in and often beyond the organisation. An active champion will put their protégé into situations that they might not believe that are ready for, and in rising to the challenge they prove to themselves that they are the expert they didn’t quite believe they could be.
The Women’s Sat Nav to Success Survey will identify the most important strategies for enabling women to be recognised, supported, rewarded and progressed by their employers. You can take part now and / or place your order for the Executive Report.