A Simple Exercise Can Help Women Overcome Self-Doubt to Succeed

More than 35 years after the term “glass ceiling” was coined, women still are dramatically underrepresented in top business leadership. Although efforts to recruit and develop women, ensure fair practices, and eliminate bias are as important as ever, are there any new ideas to help companies striving for gender parity?

My research with Jessica Sim suggests that reflecting on core personal values may be beneficial for women in competitive business settings.

Our studies were relatively simple. They investigated how reflecting on personal values affected grades in two cohorts of MBA students (819 total) at a competitive international business school. In each experiment one group of participants was prompted to reflect on and write about their personal values for a few minutes during orientation activities. Other participants were prompted to do a similar writing exercise, but about other values (including institutional ones). The values were referenced in a class presentation during orientation and then again before exams week. At the end of the first term, each group’s grade point average was tested for gender differences.

For the MBAs who did not write about their values, the gender gap in GPA was between one-quarter and one-half of a point on a four-point scale, with the women performing slightly worse than the men. This difference remained even when we controlled for GMAT scores and gender inequality levels in the countries the MBAs are from. The probability of this gap emerging due to chance alone is less than 1 in 1,000, suggesting the gender gap is meaningful.

For students who wrote about their values, the gender gap was eliminated. Specifically, both times we ran the experiment, the gender gap in grade performance narrowed so that the remaining gender gap was not statistically significant.

The studies were simple, but making sense of why writing about personal values closed the performance gap between men and women requires an understanding of complex psychological processes.

Psychologists have known for some time that people strive to maintain feelings of self-worth. People want to feel respected and that their lives have meaning. Things get tricky when people are members of groups that may be devalued in an important context — professional, academic, etc.

When ambitious professional women see few women at senior levels (both in the broader business environment as well as in their own companies), they may suspect that women are devalued. This can lead to self-doubt that interferes with their performance in the form of stereotype threat, a phenomenon first identified by Claude Steele and Eliot Aronson among ambitious African American college students who experienced self-doubt and underperformed on an exam. It has been shown to affect the performance of women in mathematics and to lead white men playing basketball to experience self-doubt. It also has been hypothesized toaffect women and minorities at work.

As part of our second study we asked a subset of participants how much self-doubt they felt approximately three weeks before their final exams (five weeks after they had completed the values writing exercise). Writing about personal values helped eliminate the gender performance gap through changes in participants’ self-doubt.

How long the effects last may be surprising. We attribute their relatively long duration to introducing the writing exercise during orientation. The transition into a new organization or role can be critical for people’s identities, which can substantively shift the trajectory of their experience.

People’s core values are connected to their feelings of self-worth in a similar way that being a member of a devalued group is. Thus reflecting on values bolstered participants’ resiliency against the potential threat to their self-worth that resulted from being a woman.

These studies are exciting both in their own right and as a first step toward helping women and members of other devalued groups in business settings. We are optimistic that similar organizational interventions can help groups such as ethnic minorities, who can experience stereotype threat in professional contexts. Now we are focused on fine-tuning how to apply what we’ve learned from the MBA studies in other organizational settings.

One of the contributions of the current research is that it involves international women (mostly European and Asian) with several years of working experience and it’s based on theories developed to explain the experience of Americans. This suggests that the intervention can shield women from potentially deleterious effects of stereotype threat globally.

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