- On September 27, 2016
Over coffee with a friend with a mutual interest in creating environments that encourage diversity, she commented on an undercurrent she has observed at several tech industry groups she attends. Her perceptions matched what I have also experienced during my speaking and coaching discussions in various professional forums.
Here’s what we’ve both observed — Women tend to short-change themselves on ‘potential.’ Not all, but many. I have seen it first hand in the tech sector, and I have heard similar stories from other career fields as well.
A little caveat before I go on…I generally don’t like to make ‘generalizations’ about any group of people because generalizations tend to perpetuate conscious or unconscious bias, and there are always so many examples that defy the odds. I acknowledge that our observations are very circumstantial…and yet, compelling enough to engage us for over an hour in a lively discussion of root causes and our own experiences.
We have noticed that women, by and large, tend to feel more comfortable standing on what they’ve done, and shying away from going after the ‘unknowns’ of what they may be capable of doing. They rely too much on ‘demonstrated performance’ and fail to see that performance, experience, and education are hallmarks of ‘demonstrated potential.’
Men on the other hand are much more likely to look at what they have done–‘demonstrated performance’–as the entre to what they can do in the future—‘demonstrated potential.’
For example, a man knows how to program in Java and PHP. When faced with an opportunity that requires Python, he is more likely to figure, ‘Hey, I’ve learned to program before, I can learn this language.’ That’s demonstrated potential. They have the confidence in themselves to know they’ve done it before so they can figure it out and deal with the risk associated with the trial and error of learning and performing again.
A woman in that same situation is much more likely to pass on the opportunity. Yes she performs well in Java and PHP, and for some reason—fear of some kind?—doesn’t feel comfortable making a commitment to do something she hasn’t already proven. Time and again I’ve heard women admit they have passed on job opportunities because they didn’t feel they met 100% of the job requirements.
Does this result from a strong sense of integrity? “I’m not going to say I can do something when I haven’t proven I can yet.” Maybe…however the Center for Creative Leadership attributes this gender disparity in self-perception to lower self-awareness (http://insights.ccl.org/blog/gender-disparities-upper-management-women-selling-short/’). Women tend to perceive they will be judged more harshly, even when this is not the case. This perception can eat away at “Self-Regard,” a foundational Emotional Intelligence competency. When not in a healthy state, Self-Regard can impact our effectiveness in every area of our life.
When I was in the Army, we were selected for promotion and promising jobs based on ‘past performance and demonstrated potential.’ What this says to me is I’ve learned things and done them well which indicates that I am capable of continuing to learn, grow, and figure out how to perform effectively even in positions I have never been exposed to before. This expectation of ‘demonstrated potential’ was fostered by the culture and for me, created a personal mindset of confidence, risk-taking, and resilience.
I think it gets down to cultivating our own sense of identity. It requires learning to trust in ourselves, believing in our own capacity for growth and resilience. Self-Regard—knowing and liking ourselves and being secure in our worth and value–is a huge component. I believe this has to be practiced personally, individually–and also reinforced culturally and organizationally.
What Can You Do At The Organizational Level To Support ‘Demonstrated Potential’?
Here are a few ‘cultural shift’ ideas:
- Encourage risk taking and celebrate actively learning from the inevitable failures and missteps
- Use mentoring and coaching to reinforce confidence and experimentation
- Foster a culture of appreciation for diversity in ideas, styles, and approaches
- Eschew the ‘X-treme’ competition environment that perpetuates ‘not good enough,’ shame, and scarcity.
Where Do Opportunities Requiring Demonstrated Potential Show Up In Your Life And How Do You Respond?
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