Research-Based Advice for Women Working in Male-Dominated Fields

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Sian Beilock for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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When it comes to gender equality in the workplace, organizations are keeping a slow — and I do mean slow— and steady pace.

In 2018, 26 years after the first “Year of the Woman” in 1992, a historic 102 women were elected to the House of Representatives. However, they still represent less than 25% of the total number of elected officials in the chamber. A record 248 women were appointed board directors among some of the most prominent companies in the U.S., but they make up just 31% of total new board directors selected last year. And while Donna Strickland became the first woman in 55 years — and the third woman overall — to win the Noble Prize in physics, women are still grossly underrepresented in many STEM fields and are more likely to face gender discrimination on the job.

In other words, progress does not mean parity. And, working in a climate where you’ve been historically excluded — like in research labs, corporate boardrooms, or even Congress — can lead women to question their abilities.

As president of Barnard College and a cognitive scientist by training, I’ve spent years observing what causes self-doubt, particularly for women in male-dominated fields. I’ve observed that there are numerous factors at play. Chief among them: gender bias that comes in both explicit and subtler forms.

The end result? Highly skilled women succumb to stereotype-driven expectations. It begins early when girls as young as six stop believing that girls are the smart ones, while boys continue to believe their gender is gifted. As women get older, these stereotypes discourage them from pursuing careers thought to be typically reserved for men. And, with fewer women in a field, subsequent generations  of women are deterred from pursuing them.

It’s a vicious cycle, but it can be broken.

Certainly, employers can take steps to encourage women to overcome anxiety and self-doubt in the workplace. For example, research shows that when women are exposed to powerful female role models, they are more likely to endorse the notion that women are well suited for leadership roles. So regular meetings — say monthly check-ins or weekly lunches — between less experienced and more senior women give younger women the opportunity to not only develop professionally but also understand that women have what it takes to succeed in an organization’s most prestigious roles. And when mentorship programs are de rigueur, those who face feelings of otherness will not feel deficient for having to proactively seek out career guidance.

However, there are also ways for women to help themselves feel more confident.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Sian Beilock is the president of Barnard College, a cognitive scientist, and author of two books — Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To (2010) and How the Body Knows Its Mind: The Surprising Power of the Physical Environment to Influence How You Think and Feel (2015).


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