This week, the Wall Street Journal offered advice from Heidi Miller, the retired president of JP Morgan’s international business, on how women can get ahead on Wall Street. I attended the same panel, hosted by the New America Foundation, and was especially struck by her new take on a well-treaded theory about what holds them back: Women are their own biggest impediments in the workplace.
Year after year, Miller encountered women who lacked confidence and were averse to taking risks.
It’s something she refers to as “selling the gap.” We all have strengths and weaknesses but women tend to underplay their strengths and worry about what they lack. Miller attests that women stay in jobs longer than men and fail to ask for opportunities.
She relayed an illuminating example of how women don’t rise to the challenge:
A woman comes in for an interview and her resume speaks to 80% of the job description. What does she spend most of the time talking about? Not how the 80% can get her over the 20%, but will that 20% hold her back? So at the end of the interview process, which should be a sales opportunity, the interviewer walks away only remembering the 20% she couldn’t do.
The guy walks in, the guy’s resume is reversed. What does he spend his time doing? Tells you why that 20% is entirely irrelevant even though he was just born yesterday. I mean that’s incredible. It’s absolutely a learned trait that many women have. I’ve talked about this for years; I don’t know why it is. Maybe it’s because we don’t like to take the risk. We’re afraid of failing in that position. We think there’s some magic knowledge that other people have that we don’t have so therefore we don’t sell the gap.
“I think that is so deadly for women in the workplace, so deadly,” says Miller. “You get opportunities because you ask for them, you sell yourself.”
A McKinsey report found that 90% of CEOs think utilizing female talent is key to competing in the marketplace but the reality is stark. Only 2.4% of Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs. This only helps to foster the notion that the people who make it to the top have some unique gift. Miller debunks this myth.
“Most people in an organization are not Einstein,” Miller says. “They have decent personalities, they know enough, they can add and subtract decently and they’re in the zone. This is true even of the best CEOs: they got lucky, they met the right person, they asked for the right opportunity, they got their job in the right economy.”
Women burden themselves with all of the “can’ts” while men are able excel with a few “cans.”