How Men and Women Think Differently About their Careers

(This is one of many posts inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I suggest you just give up and buy the book now.)

In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg talks about some of the differences in the way men and women approach to their careers.  She cites a 2011 McKinsey report called “Unlocking the Full Potential of Women in the US Economy,” written by Joanna Barsh and Lareina Yee.  They report that the addition of women in the workforce since 1970 adds up to productivity equal to about a quarter of the U.S. GDP. Yet the numbers of women in the highest positions in corporations has flattened out, despite the best efforts of companies to seek out and promote talented women.meeting group

The McKinsey report authors reviewed over 100 existing research papers, surveyed 2,500 men and women and interviewed 30 chief diversity officers and experts to understand the factors that hold women back. They wanted to understand: “What compels bright, highly-motivated women at middle management levels—and higher—to turn down opportunities for advancement, look for jobs outside the company, or leave Corporate America altogether?”

The report offers some fascinating insight as to how women and men view their jobs. Women leave positions for the same reasons men do: for bigger challenges, more money and more recognition. But they stay in jobs sometimes for a very different reason, according to McKinsey.  Women tend to stay in jobs that make them feel like they are making a difference and where they enjoy their colleagues more often than men.  Women seem to pass on promotion opportunities, according to the researchers, “Women don’t want to trade that joy for what they fear will be energy-draining meetings and corporate politics at the next management echelon.” In Sheryl Sandberg’s terms, women don’t lean in.

A 2012 McKinsey study of 4,000 men and women from leading companies found that men wanted the top spot in their company at twice the rate women did (36 percent of men, compared to 18 percent of women, said that being CEO was a goal.) Some of this is attributable to what is often called the “Imposter Syndrome,” which seems to affect many more women than men. Men tend to internalize their accomplishments more often, that is to say that they attribute success to their own talent and skills. Women tend to externalize their success; they attribute accomplishment more often to luck, hard work, or help from their team or other supportive people.  I recently wrote a story about a woman who started a non-profit and has achieved some recognition in my local market.  When I sent the story to her to fact check, she made one edit to a fact, but three edits for style.  Each style edit changed the credit for success from “her” to “her team.”

It sounds strange some 45 years after women became a significant presence in the workforce, but women often rate themselves and their performance worse than they actually are.  On the other hand, men consistently rate themselves as better than they actually are. Sandberg writes that a study of one thousand potential candidates for elected office found that men were 60 percent more likely to rate themselves as “highly qualified” to run for office, despite having no more credentials or experience than the women studied.

Joe Kremer, a Dell executive, once spoke about a job he posted that listed six key hiring criteria.

Male candidates who could meet two or three criteria lobbied him for the job, each telling him that they could figure out the rest.  Kremer is quoted as saying, “The person who should have got the job was female but she didn’t apply. I approached her and she said, ‘but of the six things I need, I only have five of them nailed’.”

It was Kremer who insisted that she apply, and she got the job.

I can hear the groans from my male readers. Really?  What’s wrong with you? One explanation is that modesty is what we deem to be attractive in women. We value modesty in men as well, but the alpha male is never expected to be modest, nor penalized for his overt confidence. Not true of women – even the alpha females. We are expected to play down our achievements, to credit our team for our success. It’s very scary to stand up and take full credit for what you’ve done; men will consider you uppity and women will disapprove. No one wants to become a lightning rod.

Somehow, we’ll have to get over that.

4 thoughts on “How Men and Women Think Differently About their Careers

  1. How about you? You hold a position of some stature and power. Did you obtain your position by being Ms. Modesty or Ms. Corporate Beast-Master?

    I understand you don’t wish to make this blog about yourself and I understand Sheryl Sandberg’s book is meant to be a “positive work” for all. Yet, as I read your post, what I get from it is this: Women choose personal happiness over power, while men choose personal power, often, over happiness.

    The local person you cite, who corrected your piece about her, did so in a way, I feel more men should do. She gave credit to her team she leads. They make her look good. Indeed, men do too little of this or is faint praise, when they do this.

    A potential positive result of Sandberg’s book may be, men will realize their ability to create a better, happier, more productive workplace, by sharing the credit with their team. While women, may learn to take a bit more credit, than they do now. By doing this, women leaders could increase their team’s faith, in the team’s ability to rise in the company. Their female manager would be evoking more of a power-leadership mentality; leading to greater credibility for her and her team.

    Many women and men, don’t like to work under a woman, because they perceive the woman as weak or weak-powered. In Jacksonville (other areas of the country too) we need more leaders, talking on the topic of “how they became leaders”; including men willing to talk about their lack of modesty, at times, to achieve their goals and leadership position. Men are known to bluff about their skills.

    Women (many men too) need to learn, when this is okay and when it’s not. It seems an art, which I, a male, don’t understand. I am convinced, we can all learn from each other. If I am not sounding politically correct in my words, it is because, I feel there is a great need, for a leadership change in the workplace.

    Otherwise, one day, women will take over the power structure in the corporate world, ruling as unwisely, as many men do today. When I see more women graduating from college than men, that tells me, in the next 20 to 25 years, the corporate power structure will change, even if most CEOs are still men. It will be forced to change by women, who will dominate many key positions in the corporate world.


    1. Always thoughtful comments. I’d like to think I’m the perfect mix of modesty and beast master. Thanks for making me laugh early this morning.


  2. […] in Spite of It starts her book with the quote from Bertrand Russell above. I’ve written about Impostor Syndrome before – the feeling that no matter what you’ve accomplished or what people think, deep down […]


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