It’s not a woman-thing; It’s a confidence thing.

I’ve started reading Lean in. It’s taken me months to decide whether or not to read it but in the end my curiosity was just too much, though Sandberg herself unwittingly provides an explanation for why I have been so reluctant to read a(nother) book about women in the workplace

“Evidence shows that people tend to behave according to stereotype when reminded, even indirectly, of the stereotype. It’s called “stereotype threat”.

When girls are reminded that they’re girls just before a maths or science exam (stereotypically male dominated subjects), even if they’re just asked to tick a M or F box, they do worse than they would have done if they hadn’t been given the subtle reminder that they’re women. I find that literature supporting women in the workplace and getting women into leadership positions does a similar thing. The literature can spend so much energy focusing on how tough it is for women, that they run a very real risk of reinforcing the very mentality and behaviour that they’re trying to dissolve.

Whatever you do, don’t think about a tipsy pink elephant in a tutu, balancing on an oversized beach ball!

By starting her book with a list of all of the areas where women are failing to be as equal to men, Sandberg unwittingly creates her own stereotype bias. I suspect the truth isn’t quite as cut and dry as we like to think it is. I personally don’t know anyone, male or female, successful or otherwise, who hasn’t had to make sacrifices and take tough decisions in their role as breadwinner. The successful ones just get on with it.

Lean in says that career progression often depends upon taking risks, and then goes on to encourage women to jump at new challenges (and their risks). I think I disagree – women have their own innate approach to risks. Men have gloriously high levels of testosterone (of which I’m regularly jealous), which can lead them to take ever increasing and unrealistic risks. Women don’t get nearly as much testosterone, so they don’t benefit from that “He Man” syndrome (“I have the Power!”), but as a result they are more clear-headed in periods of boom.

A woman is perfectly placed to calmly and meticulously map out the pros and cons of a risk, and then make a conscious and calculated decision based on her overall strategy.

Sandberg mentioned that women tend to report that their success is due to luck, or the people around them, or other circumstances beyond their control, while men tend to report that success is due to their own personal excellence. Women will report that failures are due to their personal failings (they’re not good enough), whereas men tend to report failures as due to some circumstances beyond their control.This description is an almost perfect parallel with Martin Selligman’s description of “learned pessimism”. Selligman describes how it’s possible for a person’s life experiences to “teach” them by slow attrition that they have no control over their destiny, and so they just go along with whatever life throws their way, believing that they can’t do any better.

People who have learned this pessimism tend to attribute success to circumstance and failures to their own personal failings (see Sandberg’s description of typical women’s behavior above). By comparison optimists, or people with a healthy view on life, tend to attribute success to their personal skills and abilities, and failure to circumstance.

Can it be than women’s tendency to attribute success to external circumstances and failures to their own personal failing is because they’ve “learned” through the messages that have been filtered down through a lifetime that nothing they will do can really make a difference?

Fortunately, Selligman provides a mechanism to unlearn this behaviour. ABCDE stands for Adversity, Belief, Consequences, Disputation and; Energise (though he spells it with a “z” !!) He very simply recommends working through the five headings below, either in quiet or with a trusted friend.

  • Adversity – what happened?
  • Belief – what are your beliefs about the event?
  • Consequences – what are you worried could happen as a result?
  • Dispute – Imagine that your best friend has just told you what you’ve written down in ABC above. What is your response to them
  • Energise – decide to take action!

A simple ABCD could go something like this

  • A: I had to do this month’s report. I submitted it late, and the Director picked me up for the tardiness and errors in it.
  • B: I’m useless. Whenever I try something new or above my station, I screw it up. I’m clearly not made up for management. I’ll never be as good as I used to think I could be, and this just proves it!
  • C: I feel so frustrated and angry with myself. I blushed beetroot red when the Director pointed out my errors, and couldn’t string a sentence together properly. I sounded just like the idiot he must think I am. Now I’ll never get a promotion.
  • D: Okay, I guess it was a bit unfair of my boss to land this on my desk with 24 hours’ notice on her way out the office for her holiday. I’ve never done this before, and the data was all over the place. How can she stand it?! None of it in a consistent format, and I literally had to stand over people yesterday to make sure they gave me the information I needed to go into the report. I ended up working fairly late on it, and I know that my ability to concentrate slips when I work too late, and to be fair, the errors were mostly typos, not anything of major consequence
  • E: Now that I’ve calmed down, I’m going to re-issue the report without the typos, just to prove that I can do it. I think I’ll ask my boss if I can manage next month’s report. I’m fairly sure I can streamline the process so that there’s less frantic running around at the last minute.

Selligman’s ABCDE can be very powerful for women, especially those with a strong Tend and Befriend response to stress (turning to each other for support), rather than the classical Fight or Flight mode.

Women are more likely to find it easy to imagine what to say to a friend’s ABC comments, or even to ask a close friend to provide the D to their ABC over cookies and a cup of coffee.  We’re great at building each other up – by simply turning those skills onto ourselves, women have a powerful tool to realise what they’re really capable of.

On my run after putting together the first draft of this post, I realised that a lot of the issues raised in women’s supportive literature aren’t really a woman thing. It’s just a confidence thing which the vast majority of (invisible) men struggle with too. Do yourself a favour – the next time you’re in a busy area (with your friend in a cafe over those cookies and a cup of coffee) watch the body language and postures of those around you. The chances are that the confident people will stand out because they’re so unusual. Watch the men – how many of them have the stooped posture and shuffle of someone whom life has beaten just a little into submission? If most of the people in your particular cafe carry themselves with confidence and charisma, then make friends wit them! Allow yourself to soak up and mimic the strong, confident behaviour around you, and very soon you will feel and be as strong as they appear to be.


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