I agree with lots of what Sheryl Sandberg says about what women can do to reach the top of the corporate ladder. When I think about her advice, though, I see that it fits in a huge genre of books and articles telling women how to cope and succeed in the masculine workplace. It is a big boost for women to have it said by such a successful, hi-profile woman. But her advice is not new.
One key point she makes is that women need to show more self-confidence. For her or anyone to suggest that women are generally less confident than men is nonsense. That would take a massive study by psychologists who could peer inside a large sample of corporate men and women. I suspect that (in general) women are just more forthcoming about their self-doubts and men are less comfortable disclosing them.
It is true that women will do better in the workplace if they can appear and speak with greater confidence. In our culture, confidence is seen as reflecting competence, though the correlation is weak. Research backs Sandberg up. The Stanford School of Business published a study saying that women do well in business if they can operate in certain masculine ways but “self-monitor” and balance this with feminine behaviors. One of the masculine traits the study highlighted was confidence.
The typical man speaks with confidence (for example, using declarative sentences) even when he is unsure or wrong. The typical woman speaks with more humility and qualification. Even if she is very sure of her point, she may hedge it or express it through questions. He says, “We should do XYZ.” She says, “I could be wrong but I think maybe we should consider XYZ.” The typical man “raises his hand” and seeks a job for which he meets some but not most qualifications, assuming he can develop any skills needed. The average woman modestly waits until she meets all the requirements. An Austrian executive concluded, “people whose confidence exceeds their ability are more likely to be men and those whose capabilities exceed their confidence are more likely to be female.”
These are not minor differences. There are two languages spoken at work and in the world. One is (sometimes mistakenly) associated with true confidence; the other is not. If leaders become “bilingual,” they will translate the two languages rather than taking them literally. They will know that an assertive man may or may not know what he is talking about. They will listen to see if a woman making a point through questions has a brilliant idea worth hearing, endorsing and acting on.
Lots of authors and coaches, including Sandberg, advise women to speak more like men. I say we must, meanwhile, coach men and women to understand and appreciate both languages. In a bilingual (inclusive) culture, women will feel heard and valued. They will be more engaged and effective. And their companies will get the benefits of diverse perspectives and thinking.