How women undersell themselves

I have been reading a lot recently about the impact the pandemic might have on women’s rights. Many fear that the current crisis might set back half a century of progress towards gender equality in work.

Given how much more progress still needs to be made, these articles make for depressing reading. The issues are complex; inequality affects distribution of opportunities, income, financial security, and economic independence. For me, someone who has a tendency to be overwhelmed by complexity, well let’s just say this is not a great space for me. I am having to work at managing my responses!

Differential economic impact

In a nutshell, it seems the pandemic is generally amplifying all kinds of inequality. Yet it is also true that not all sectors of the economy, not even all departments within an organisation for example, are suffering equally. When the history of this period is written, one thing that’s for sure is that it will be a story of differential impacts and an uneven distribution of upsides and downsides across sectors, companies, departments – and individuals.

As an employment solicitor (as well as a Lightning Process Practitioner), these issues of inequality in the labour market, the prospects for women in the workplace, and the relationship with resilience, are close to my heart. Also, as a Lightning Process Practitioner, I am interested in these  questions: in any given set of circumstances, where do individual people have direct or indirect influence over what happens in their lives? How can we bolster an individual’s confidence and ability to wield that influence, no matter how large or small it is, to maximise the prospects of leading a flourishing life  – even where many of the defining factors are outside of an individual’s control? And when economic times are hard, it can be even more challenging for people to see where their influence lies and to use it.

The example of language 

As I write this, two things keep popping up for me. The first is an article from last year (so pre-pandemic), in the Harvard Business Review, reporting on an analysis of gender disparities in self-promotion amongst academics. Titled ‘How women undersell themselves’, the authors found a shocking disparity between genders in the language academics use to promote their research. The authors concluded “we cannot say whether women understate their achievements or whether men overstate them”.

Let’s remind ourselves that this stuff really matters: the language used plays into how valued an academic’s research is – its “impact”; in turn, perceived impact affects access to future funding opportunities, promotions, and pay.  The difference in language used, therefore, feeds into gender gaps in pay and promotion. It also, in the pandemic-scarcity world, likely feeds into who gets to keep and who loses a job.

Equipping ourselves to use our influence

What strikes me about this article, reading it as an outsider, is how the rules of the game seem so transparent. They appear to be within an individual woman’s grasp to play, yet many women are not doing so. Why? For example, is it because the rules are only now transparent or the women lack confidence in navigating them?

The second thing popping up for me, which is directly related, is a wonderful article about the legendary tennis player, Billie Jean King. It focuses on her contribution in moving towards equality in prize money between men and women over half a century. She said: “Everything goes back to money whether you like it or not. I want girls to go for the money. I want boys, too, but boys are taught to go for the money. I want girls to be taught just like the boys to go for the money. Because it provides opportunity, empowerment. You can take care of yourself, also your loved ones, your family. So many people are so poor they go to bed hungry at night.”

The power of knowledge plus confidence

There are times when we need greater transparency on how things work and to be taught the rules. Other times, what matters is having the confidence to work within those rules  – or to reject them and use our influence instead to change them. As we stand now, women (and men) should think about the risks of losing the progress made, to reflect about where we have influence and to wield it. Sometimes that will require collective action; sometimes it is individual steps. We may also have to ask ourselves: ‘what stands in my way – do I lack confidence?’ –  and to reach out for help to clear the way.