When a Women Decides

Therese Huston based her book How Women Decide on a premise: “Is a woman’s experience issuing a tough call, a decision with serious stakes, any different from a man’s? I’ve found that when a man faces a hard decision, he only has to think about making a judgment, but when a woman faces a hard decision, she has to think about making a judgment and also navigate being judged.”

Huston says we don’t often realize that we’re scrutinizing a woman’s decision more than we would a man’s; it can be hard to notice because there are very few scenarios where all factors other than gender are identical. Life isn’t a great laboratory setting.

But she goes on to cite a fairly recent example that does provide a clear picture of how we judge men and women’s decisions differently.

In 2013, new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines for changing Yahoo’s work-from-home policy. Yahoo announced that employees could no longer telecommute full-time, and the press lambasted Mayer. The second guessing and criticism went on for at least two years. The consensus was that her decision didn’t make sense in light of Yahoo’s mostly tech workforce and would hurt women.

I remember that decision and my surprise about it as well. I don’t remember hearing anything about when Best Buy’s CEO, Hubert Joly, made the same decision about a week later. Huston writes, “When he ended Best Buy’s generous work-from-home policy, business reporters dutifully picked up the story, but his announcement didn’t cause a public outcry the way Mayer’s did.”

Here’s what’s interesting about the disparity in reactions. You might think Mayer’s decision was questioned because she was so new on the job; she’d been hired as CEO just about six months earlier. But Joly had been on the job about the same amount of time.

More interesting: Mayer’s decision, for all its headlines, affected only about two hundred employees (of Yahoo’s roughly 10,000.) Joly’s decision reportedly changed the lives of nearly four thousand corporate employees who often worked from home. Mayer’s smaller impact was bigger news. Why?

Huston thinks that this tendency to trust men’s decisions and second guess decisions made by women may even account for some of the disparity in hiring women for C-level roles. She says maybe we trust men more to make the hard decisions.

Of the five hundred largest companies in the United States and the one hundred largest in the United Kingdom, the percentage of female executives is identical—only 15 percent. Then there’s what Huston calls the John Statistic. When you look at the S&P 1500, there are more male CEOs named John than there are female CEOs of any name.

I know – it doesn’t sit well with me either. But we may have been conditioned subtly for most of our lives to believe it. Isn’t it strange that Americans have never elected a female president? Huston says she’s not blaming individuals; she’s curious as to how popular culture might create impressions that affect us subconsciously. She wrote her book hoping to help us educate ourselves about our hidden biases around decision-making.

In future posts, I’ll talk about how decisions are made and whether there are differences between the way men and women make them.

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