On Having the Courage to Let Your Life Make a Difference

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In Why Network More is Bad Advice for Women Sarah Green cites a new study by Lily Fange, an associate professor of finance at INSEAD and Sterling Huang, a Ph.D candidate at the school, of 1,815 Wall Street analysts. The women in the study were more likely to have attended an Ivy league university: 35% versus only 25% of men, but their study suggests that whilst male and female analysts had an equal number of school connections, men appeared to get a lot more help from their contacts, right from the start of their careers.

This increased help improved forecast accuracy for the male analysts and they were more likely to be recognised by Institutional Investor; analysts listed in the magazine tend to earn three times more than other analysts.

Fang and Huang’s study did find that connections with executive women were helpful to female analysts. However, once again the impact was greater, on forecast accuracy, for male analysts connected to male executives.

Sarah Green goes on to share research by Sarah Dillard and Vanessa Lipschitz. How Female CEOs Actually Get to the Top, the career paths of the 24 women who head Fortune 500 companies were analysed, and the message overwhelmingly is that “slow and steady wins the day”.   Women tended to spend 23 years in one stint at a company, before becoming CEO. The median point for their male counterparts was only 15 years. This suggests that for women, finding the right culture early in their career is critical. It also says that the advice “fake it til you make it” is not useful. Women don’t choose to progress or are not offered progression until their depth of experience offers irrefutable evidence of their suitability for the top job.

In a Scotland on Sunday, article Women held back by “lack of self-confidence” it was revealed that research by the Institute of Directors in Scotland found that self-confidence is a barrier to women applying for board positions. 80 women in senior positions were interviewed and many stated they were concerned about their lack of gravitas and assertiveness at the highest level. IOD Director David Watt described this as “another hurdle that needs to be crossed”. Possibly, but it might also say that women don’t want to bullshit their way into positions of power.

Gravitas is defined as “dignity, seriousness or solemnity of manner” and a myriad of research suggests it is far the most important part of executive presence. However research by Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Columbia university professor and founder of the Centre for Talent Innovation has found that gravitas is “profoundly gendered”.

Hewlett breaks gravitas into six components: confidence; decisiveness; integrity and truthfulness; ability to show emotional intelligence; reputation and standing; and vision. It seems that we value the traditional concept of gravitas – the charismatic, confident male leader and undervalue more empathic elements such as the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes.

At a debate last week on the future of education, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt stated that girls as young as 7 or 8 should be given careers advice to broaden their horizons: “girls can be taught they can be architects, or they can be engineers or they can be doctors, beginning in primary school. We have a challenge here to make sure we are raising ambitions”.

I applaud the sentiment, but the above research suggests that unless things change, those ambitious girls will be met with significant challenges in progressing their careers. I also believe that this narrow definition of ambition is stuck in the past.

In 2028 or so, when my 9 year old daughter will be taking her first steps onto her career on-ramp, Google’s DeepMind (which aims to make machines smart) will no doubt have taken artificial intelligence beyond machines beating human gamers.

In a recent interview with The FT’s Murad Ahmed, DeepMind founder Demis Hassabis said:

“It’s quite possible there are unique things about humans, but, in terms of intelligence, it doesn’t seem likely. With the brain, there isn’t anything non-computable. In other words, the brain is a computer like any other and can, therefore, be recreated. Traits previously considered innate to humans — imagination, creativity, even consciousness — may just be the equivalent of software programs.”


In 2028, the world might need more architects, engineers and doctors, but it will need courageous leaders with resilient skills – creativity, social intelligence – empathic skills, way more, if the technology industry is to be challenged, and be a force for good. In an October 2015 special on Silicon Valley The FT, it was reported that there are only FIVE computer scientists in the world working on making artificial intelligence “friendly”. Five? That’s all?

For young girls hoping to become the 6th, the stats today are gloomy – of the top 12 technology companies, ranked by market cap, just 6.8% of board members are women. Just 11% of venture capitalists are women. Little wonder that the obstacles facing women in technology was a constant theme on a recent visit to Silicon Valley by a delegate of 17 female technology CEOs (covered by Caroline Daniel for The FT). Ironically in a sector that is all about the future, Technology is as backwards and sexist as they come.

Advice on overcoming “another hurdle” in female career progression – through improving self-confidence (so women’s leadership can be more male) or broadening young girl’s horizons to include traditionally male roles such as architect or engineer in their “when I grow up I want to be…” dreams, is well-meaning. But like the advice to network more, or to “move between companies as you hopscotch your way into bigger roles and more responsibility” this comes from solutions drawn from a male playbook.

Leaders in government and bodies such as the IOD need to be advancing the conversation to question the current leadership paradigm altogether. Whether you buy into the “end of the world is nigh” vision of the future of technology or are merely hacked off with the shameful conduct of our largest corporations and the billions of pounds of value destroyed as a result, there is no doubt that we need another way. We need a new leadership playbook in which integrity and truthfulness, reputation and standing and vision are valued over decisiveness and assertiveness. As Einstein put it, we cannot solve our current problems with the same level of thinking that created them.

Drawing upon what physicist, philosopher and management thought leader Danah Zohar calls “spiritual intelligence”, a critical mass of present and potential leaders acting from higher motivations can make a difference. Carl Jung said “we make our own epoch”. This is the careers advice we should be giving to our girls, and our boys.

Whether our children aspire to be Prime Minister, CEO, enter a profession, be an aid worker or run a bakery the question we should be asking isn’t “what do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s, “whatever level you operate at in life are you willing to let your life make a difference?”
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