Business & Real Estate

Rethinking the confidence-driven workplace amid a tech industry sex-bias suit

In this Feb. 24, 2015, file photo, Ellen Pao, right, leaves the Civic Center Courthouse along with her attorney, Therese Lawless, left, during a lunch break in her trial in San Francisco. Plaintiff Pao testified Monday, March 9, 2015, that female employees were treated disrespectfully at the firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and some were not even invited, when the company held a series of events.
In this Feb. 24, 2015, file photo, Ellen Pao, right, leaves the Civic Center Courthouse along with her attorney, Therese Lawless, left, during a lunch break in her trial in San Francisco. Plaintiff Pao testified Monday, March 9, 2015, that female employees were treated disrespectfully at the firm of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, and some were not even invited, when the company held a series of events. AP

When a group of men and women took a science exam and scored the same, the women underestimated their performance and refused to enter a science fair, while the men did the opposite.

At Google, men were being promoted at a much higher rate than women - because they were nominating themselves for promotion and women were not.

And at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm on trial for gender discrimination, employees have described a culture in which the people who got ahead were those who hyped themselves and talked over others. Again, they were men.

The confidence gap between men and women is well documented. But it is also clear that a lack of confidence does not necessarily equate to a lack of competence (or the other way around.) So the challenge for workplaces is to enable people without natural swagger to be heard and get promoted.

At Kleiner Perkins, one solution was to give Ellen Pao, the former junior partner who is suing the firm, coaching to improve her speaking skills to participate in the firm’s “interrupt-driven” environment. Testimony is continuing in Pao’s lawsuit and jury hasn’t yet been given the case to decide whether Kleiner Perkins is liable.

But the interruption coaching raises an interesting question. Is it employees’ responsibility to learn how to interrupt, or employers’ job to create a culture in which people without the loudest voice or most aggressive manner can still be heard?

“On the one hand, we need to lean in and be more confident and put ourselves out there, and there is more hesitance to do that for women than men,” said Joyce Ehrlinger, a psychology professor at Washington State University and an author of the study that found that women underestimated their performance on the science exam.

“But there’s this issue of how women are perceived,” she said. “We don’t put ourselves out there because we know it’s not going to be accepted in the same way.”

It is “the double bind of speaking while female,” as Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook executive and “Lean In” author, and Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, recently wrote in The New York Times.

The confidence gap begins very early, Ehrlinger said, when parents overestimate crawling ability of boys and underestimate that of girls, for example. It can be reinforced at work, where women are paid less than men and evaluated in more negative terms.

Some employers have figured out ways to address it, other than teaching women to interrupt. The show runner for “The Shield” banned interrupting during pitches by writers, Sandberg and Grant reported.

At Google, senior women began hosting workshops to encourage and prepare women to nominate themselves for promotion.

Women are often more comfortable asserting themselves when they talk about ideas in terms of a group, Ehrlinger said - describing a plan that has been vetted by multiple people or explaining how it would benefit the whole company, not just their own careers.

Still, in an age when the No. 1 piece of career advice is to build one’s personal brand, that is not necessarily a clear path to success, either.

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