The editor of Quartz at Work is joined for a Q&A with Dr. Sian Beilock, who leads one of the nation’s most elite women’s colleges, Barnard, and will soon be the first woman president at Dartmouth College in its 250-year history. As a cognitive scientist, her work explores how systemic biases can create additional stress for women that further holds them back professionally.
Invisible tasks are primarily given to women
Quartz: The world of work continues to struggle in both the treatment of women and how to leverage their unique strengths. What is one behavior you see inside organizations this is hindering their success?
Dr. Beilock—In the workplace, women are more likely to take on the non-promotional, invisible tasks that need to be done and benefit the whole office, but are not going to move careers forward. There are a few reasons for this—studies show that women feel more pressure to accept and to have fears of negative repercussions should they decline, as compared to male coworkers. It’s also true that managers are 12% more likely to ask women in the first place.
Even task distribution is key
How can an organization reduce these types of tasks or right-size their distribution?
Through a round-robin approach, managers can ensure they are assigning administrative work equally to employees regardless of gender, and that the same employees aren’t having to repeatedly handle invisible work. Additionally, by keeping this distribution transparent and on team channels, managers can stay accountable to their decisions.
I’m sensing you have more advice for how a company can evolve their thinking and shift their processes. Can you share on idea that will make an impact for working women?
In order to adopt a more holistic scoring process that takes into account the breadth of work being done, managers might institute a cross-team evaluation process that allows leadership from other departments to weigh in. Holding performance conversations across teams and departments allows leadership to overcome silos in specific functions and may help them overcome biases in how they see particular employees’ roles or behavior.
Rethinking how we measure success may also cause a company to take a larger step back, examining what it means to be a good leader at their company. Where should companies focus these efforts?
While women leaders often score higher than men in attributes including conscientiousness, reliability, and trustworthiness, traditional growth potential characteristics, like leadership, ambition, and assertiveness are typically attributed to men. In this way, women have to overcome stereotypical notions of strong leadership. A Yale study found that despite receiving higher performance scores than men, women are more likely to receive low growth potential scores, negatively impacting opportunities for promotion. To properly account for the leadership qualities that women bring to the table, leaders can develop a unified promotion criteria that factors in a variety of different skills. This can help combat biases toward certain attributes and create more equitable assessments come promotion time. Full transparency in the promotion process is key in codifying these policies, as employees can glean insights into how they are being evaluated, share feedback, and hold managers accountable for their thinking.
Leverage two top strengths of women
Are there traits unique to women leaders that a company should be leveraging differently?
As many companies are encouraging workers to return to office, leaders must be accustomed to change and able to manage a workforce through uncertainty. Research shows being flexible and resilient is important for success. Women, as they define themselves through multiple identities and are able to cycle through them while still maintaining a strong sense of self, could be at an advantage here. Women may have a leg up when coping with major change, allowing them to thrive during reopenings and transition periods.
Lower financial confidence
Even with changes to the systems inside of a company, I realize there is work to be done on the individual level. Is there one behavior or mindset that you see in women that might be prohibiting their own success?
People like to do what makes them comfortable. This fact might be especially problematic for women when speaking about salary and pay. For example, in terms of financial confidence specifically, there is a big gender gap (pdf) in financial literacy and behavior. Women report higher levels of financial anxiety—which is unfortunately a phenomenon that starts early. My own research shows that math anxiety experienced by girls as early as in elementary school, can lead to avoidance of everyday situations using math later in their lives, including money management and salary negotiation. Due to this, women tend to be risk averse in matters that involve finances, impacting their overall career confidence and trajectory.
Invest in financial literacy
What’s one step a woman can take to improve their financial confidence?
Improving financial literacy goes a long way in increasing confidence behind financial decision-making, so I encourage women to spend time expanding their financial knowledge, whether it’s through online resources, mentors, or even formalized classes. Confidence builds through participation, so acting upon the financial knowledge one has, maybe by investing in the stock market or making financial changes, will empower greater trust in one’s self. Above all, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to be uncomfortable—in fact, discomfort often means that growth is taking place. Research shows that when we view our discomfort as a signal of personal development, we are able to be more motivated and engaged in the task at hand.