Overcoming the Confidence Gap for Women

Lynne Doughtie, the next chief executive of KPMG, one of the Big Four accounting firms.

When I met Lynne Doughtie this week, I was struck by how different it felt sitting with her than with any male chief executive I had met over the years. Six weeks ago, Ms. Doughtie was elected United States chairwoman and chief executive of KPMG. When she takes over the role on July 1, she will become the first woman to serve in both of those roles for a Big Four accounting firm. Cathy Engelbert was chosen as chief executive of Deloitte in February.

In my short time with Ms. Doughtie, I found her to be warm, open, gracious and introspective – in short, qualities more traditionally associated with women. I felt relaxed, comfortable and unhurried talking with her, in part because she seemed more focused on having a conversation than on announcing or positioning herself.

By making this observation, I’m reinforcing a stereotype about women — and by implication a parallel stereotype about men, and especially male leaders, as dominant, aggressive and certain. So be it. For all the exceptions, these stereotypes feel true more often than they do not.

What seems undeniable is that we need more leaders who make people feel the way Ms. Doughtie made me feel. I say that for a simple reason. The better leaders make us feel – including about ourselves — the better we are likely to perform.

In the most interesting research I have come across comparing male and female leaders, the consulting firm Zenger Folkman studied 16,000 of them – two-thirds men, one-third women – as well as their managers, subordinates and peers.

Women rated better than men on 12 out of 16 competencies. These included “takes initiative,” “drives for results” and “stretches for results,” all traditional measures of effective leadership. They also included every one of the more human competencies — “practices self-development,” “develops others,” “motivates and inspires others,” “builds relationships” and “collaboration and teamwork.” These leadership qualities are more critical than ever in a highly networked, fast-moving, interdependent global economy. Traditionally, they have been valued far below more technical skills.

“Women do tend to be collaborative, and that is important in a world and a work force that is changing so fast,” Ms. Doughtie told me. “The challenge in most organizations is to innovate and adapt. An autocratic style doesn’t serve that. You need different perspectives at the table from diverse backgrounds.”

Interestingly, the female leaders in the Zenger Folkman study were rated about equal with the men when it came to solving problems and analyzing issues. The only competencies in which men rated higher than women were technical expertise, innovation and a strategic perspective about the outside world and other groups.

In another study, the organization Catalyst found that companies with the highest representation of women in top management consistently experienced better financial performance than the group of companies with the lowest.

Despite such findings, the number of women in top leadership roles remains depressingly low and slow to change. Women make up more than half of the work force, but they still represent less than 5 percent of the chief executives of the largest companies, and about 15 percent of senior executives.

Only two dozen presidents among the world’s 196 countries are women. Nearly 50 percent of those attending law school today are women, but only 20 percent of the partners at law firms are women.

The most obvious obstacle to the rise of women in leadership roles is the degree to which male-dominated corporate cultures still reward long work hours. As Prof. Robin J. Ely of Harvard Business School and her colleagues reported recently, men often feel compelled to sacrifice their families to advance their careers, while many women feel that the cost to their families is too great to pay. Even when women choose to pursue their careers, organizations continue to devalue or undervalue the range of leadership skills they often bring to the table.

In addition, as Sheryl Sandberg has pointed out, women often unwittingly undermine themselves. The event at which I met Ms. Doughtie this week was a conference on women’s leadership tied to a Ladies Professional Golf Association tournament, both sponsored by KPMG. Ms. Doughtie’s talk was a summary of the findings in a study that the firm commissioned about women’s attitudes toward leadership.

Nearly two-thirds of the 3,000 professional and college-age women in the KPMG study expressed a desire to someday become senior leaders. Only 40 percent were consistently able to envision themselves as leaders. While men often overvalue their strengths, women too frequently undervalue theirs. Call it a continuing confidence gap.

Eighty-six percent of the women surveyed were taught be “nice to others” growing up and to do well in school, but less than 50 percent were taught leadership lessons. Two-thirds said they were cautious about sharing their point of view at work or taking steps to become leaders.

Ms. Doughtie’s early advantage was having a role model in her own mother, a successful businesswomen who ran a family trucking business, among others. “I had role models all along the way who gave me confidence,” she said.

One was John Veihmeyer, KPMG’s global chairman, who grew up with five sisters, each of whom excelled academically and professionally. Mr. Veihmeyer pushed to name Ms. Doughtie the managing partner of KPMG’s United States advisory business 10 years ago, when others felt she was too young for such responsibility.

Two-thirds of the women in the KPMG study felt they had learned their most important lessons about leadership from other women, and 82 percent of working women in the study believed that networking with female leaders would help them advance their careers. Even so, four out of five women did not feel comfortable asking for mentors.

Ms. Doughtie will now have an opportunity to influence substantially the culture of a company that employs thousands of young women (and men). One way is by constantly retelling her story and by building a network of mentors for young women, both to help them navigate their career paths and encourage them to believe more in themselves.

Receiving praise from mentors and leaders, for example, was the single biggest factor influencing women’s perceptions of themselves in the study, more even than receiving raises and promotions.

At a broader level, my hope is that Ms. Doughtie — and Ms. Engelbert, who is also the mother of two children — will draw on her experiences to create more humane, flexible and sustainable work environments in a profession long known for relentlessly brutal working hours.

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