When I was a senior in high school, I participated in a young women’s leadership workshop run by the large consulting firm McKinsey & Company. At our first event, we were told to introduce ourselves and share something we exceptional at. There was a catch though: we weren’t allowed to attribute our successes to anyone but ourselves.
It seemed like a simple task at first, but after just two or three introductions, I realized the icebreaker would take longer than I had imagined. Many girls subconsciously modified their accomplishments with phrases like “people tell me I’m good at” or “I guess I’m okay at” and, upon each sign of hesitation, the facilitator would instruct them to start over. It was as if each girl was embarrassed to take ownership over her own varsity letters, Model U.N. awards or artistic achievements. I was no exception.
Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook and author of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, has identified the tendency of women to underestimate their own abilities as a key factor in the presence and persistence of the modern-day glass ceiling.
A September 2015 report by Mckinsey and LeanIn.Org surveyed 118 companies with roughly 30,000 employees each in an effort to research the current state of women in corporate America. The study found that women are underrepresented at every corporate level, with the greatest disparity at senior leadership levels. A 2003 Carnegie Mellon University study found that, of young adults entering the workforce out of college, 57 percent of males negotiated their starting salaries compared to just 7 percent of women. In short: women are doing amazing things, but they won’t demand credit for it.
For some reason, women think their work and their accomplishments are somehow less deserving of recognition than that of their male counterparts. Traditionally, I’ve attributed corporate America’s gender gap to a history of sexism and social barriers both in the office and at home. But what if women aren’t achieving their goals largely because of themselves?
What bothers me the most about this observation is that it seems uncomfortably accurate. I constantly remind myself and anyone who disagrees that I get good grades because I study for hours on end– not because I’m smart. I’m good at writing because I revise each sentence, word and comma placement countless times before hitting “print;” not because I’m a good writer. And no matter how prepared I am for an exam, I continue to tell the guy in my class who asks me how I feel about it directly afterward that “I’m not sure.” What gets to me is that I really am not sure, and apparently so are my peers.
Sitting in that office building, I was surrounded by impressive girls from all over New Jersey– each intensely driven and bound for elite colleges and universities. But when prompted to take ownership over our own achievements, many of us automatically attributed them to other people.
I don’t know why women are more likely than men to tell themselves they aren’t good enough, they don’t deserve a promotion and that their successes are only a product of the help they receive from those around them. Looking around the room, I remember thinking to myself how each girl was undoubtedly bound for a successful career in business, government, medicine etc. But what if our own reluctance to identify and demand recognition for our strengths is the thickest glass standing in the way of our professional goals?