Thursday, March 9, 2023

Women, success, and harnessing inherent strengths - an update

Currently, there are 25 women serving in the US Senate - but only 59 have achieved this status, ever. While women make up 46% of the workforce, only 10% are CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, which is considered an all-time high. And while the benchmark of power or financial achievement should never define an individual's success, the discrepancy between the sexes in these roles is still striking.

It is National Women's History Month, and perhaps, time to revisit the disparities related to women's success in male-dominated fields. 

Both of the figures listed above reflect an increase from 2016 when I originally wrote this article. At that time, only 31 women had ever served in the US Senate, and only 5% of Fortune 500 company CEOs were women. Yes, this may seem like an upsurge in representation, but it is still small compared to male dominance.  The gender pay gap has remained stable at 84 cents to a dollar. And women are still typically underrepresented in all STEM fields, compromising 34% of the US job force, with only 16% in Engineering and 26% in Computer Science fields. The numbers are even more discouraging for women of color, with only Asian women (6.5%), Black women (1.8%), Latinas (2.4%), and Native American/Alaskan Native women (0.1%) working in STEM fields.

Social/cultural pressure and sexism notwithstanding, what is puzzling about this gender gap in positions of power and "traditional" success, is that girls typically surpass boys in their early development:

  • Compared to boys, girls demonstrate more advanced verbal and fine-motor skills and a longer attention span. They develop organizational and attentional skills at an earlier age, and their reading and writing abilities surpass those of boys, on average, by 1 1/2 years.

  • Girls also typically exhibit better social skills, including greater relational skills, patience, cooperativeness, and empathy.

  • Girls excel throughout elementary school, often surpassing boys on most measures of academic success. Confident and curious, they approach learning with passion and drive.

Yet, pre-teen girls often lose confidence in middle school, that confluence of drama, social pressure, and self-scrutiny. Peer influences, cultural messages demanding conformity, and interest in boys have a powerful effect on self-esteem. Gifted and high-achieving girls have a particularly difficult time, as standing out as "brainy" and smart can limit social acceptance. Many bright girls learn to hide their talents so that they can fit in. However, hormonal and brain differences also may play a role in limiting risk-taking and contributing to a tendency toward overthinking and indecision.

Many of us retain that middle school sense of self, but we don't have to act on those perceptions.

Highly competent, socially mature, and capable of handling multiple tasks, girls still frequently hold themselves back. Gifted girls who are emotionally intense, highly sensitive, and sometimes even perfectionistic, may be especially vulnerable to the self-criticism and anxiety that emerges - and which may last long past middle school. And those girls who identify as non-binary and are discovering how they define their identity struggle even more, especially in environments that dismiss their differences. As young women mature, it is particularly important to dispel negative middle school assumptions about themselves. 

What can girls and women do about this dilemma?

1. View these biological influences as strengths - not weaknesses.  Tendencies toward caution,  and self-scrutiny, in their most positive form, can be aspects of conscientiousness - the variable most consistently associated with academic staying power. Highly focused, conscientious girls are more organized, diligent, and determined, and get the job done.

2. Embrace the collaborative, cooperative nature of women's relational strengths. More and more businesses are recognizing that a collaborative, team approach achieves faster results than an individual-centric one. Women excel at forming relationships; they see the big picture and recognize that motivation stems from commitment and challenge, that complexity is a strength, and that empathy will get you farther than harsh demands. 

3. Work to eliminate fears when they affect self-esteem and success. If chronic self-doubt or fear of taking risks interfere with progress or personal well-being, it is time to seek help to eliminate the problem. Women are often less likely to ask for a raise or promotion than men. They need to reconsider their standards and consider when they are entitled to better treatment. Self-scrutiny, worry and hesitation may be common, but can be changed. Consider finding support from a mentor, supervisor, or trusted peers. And sometimes, counseling with a licensed mental health professional can help to eliminate remnants of self-doubt and uncertainty.

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