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Behaviourally Informed Career Advice for Women


Entering the field of behavioural science, or any field really, is not the same for a woman as it is for a man. Working is different for women. Building a career is different for women. We know this. It’s always been like this. And it will likely continue to be like this for a while. It took me a couple of years to realize the difference between myself and my male colleagues. But here we are. So through both my own (anecdotal) experience, and some behavioural scientific evidence, I came up with 4 pieces of advice for women, trying to get ahead.


 


1. Be strategic about it Whatever you’re aiming for career wise, whether that’s a PhD program, working in a behavioural consultancy, working in a think tank, policy unit, marketing agency etc. be aware of how the women fared before you. In all fairness, for the PhD program this advice probably doesn’t need to be gendered; it’s always good to know how PhD supervisors treat their supervisees. Because a PhD supervisor is so ‘make or break’ to a PhD student’s experience, and success. For the other career paths mentioned above, figure out what the ‘female experience’ is: why did they decide to work for [insert name of organisation here]? How are they’re enjoying it? Do they see themselves stay longer? What is a day at work like? How (if) do they see themselves progress upwards? The simplest way to do this is to talk to current, but also previous, employees (supervisees). Ask them the aforementioned questions. Maybe ask them specifically if they feel a gender divide. Now those who are still working at [the organisation] may be a lot less honest than those who left, so do keep that in mind. But you should be able to walk away with some information! And you do have eyes. If all of the management is white and male, and those below them are predominantly female and of mixed races, you know exactly what you’re looking at. Especially if most of the previous employees (so those who left) are women. This also works if you’re non-white. Now that you have this information, are you simply supposed to throw away all job opportunities that don’t have any female management? That’s really up to you, but I’d be very surprised if you had that luxury. A career is a trajectory of different stepping stones (meaning different kinds of experiences and jobs) that hopefully continue to move upwards (if that is your ambition). Just be honest about yourself that in certain jobs, you, as a woman, might not progress above a certain level, due to the gender divide being enabled and continued by those who have a say in it. Which will eventually lead to point 4. But first…


2. The Imposter Syndrome Women, on average, have less confidence than men and are more risk averse than men. Unsurprisingly, the imposter syndrome – the belief that this is all a big joke and you’re an imposter who can’t really do any of the tasks at hand and are 5 seconds away from being found out – is more prevalent in women than in men. This is not necessarily a problem until you realize that as a result women come across a lot less confident in their own abilities. And most management still believes that people’s own confidence is in direct correlation of their abilities (science does not back this up…). So what are we supposed to do here? Fake it till we make it? Act more ‘like a man’ (read: delusional self-belief)? I once floated this suggestion with a DEI crowd at a conference and it’s a miracle I left with limbs intact. And still, I don’t think I’m entirely wrong. There’s many types of confidence. There’s those that border on arrogance, there’s overconfidence (delusional, dare I say), there’s the Pippi Longstocking optimistic kind of confidence (‘I have never tried that before so I think I should be able to do it’), there’s motivational confidence ‘I’ll give it my best attempt!’ and the more quiet, almost stoic confidence of ‘I’ll try my best – and if it fails that’s not necessarily a reflection upon me’. They are all a form of confidence (and I’m sure there’s more of them), and some are simply a better fit for you then others. When deciding on which type of confidence you’re going to ‘fake till you make it’ do pick one that actually fits with who you are as a person. Because 1) you won’t be able to keep up that kind of charade for long if it’s a complete mismatch and 2) women get penalized differently from men, so if you somehow fuck this up, you’ll hear about it during one of you feedback sessions. Which brings me to…


3. Don’t take it (too) personal I recently saw a fascinating presentation by Michael Kasumovic in which he explains that if two pools of men and women mix, the interactions (feedback) completely change. Now this was done in an online gaming environment, and I do feel like you should really understand what’s going on here. In this game you have objective rankings (based on kill count or whatever), so you know where you sit skill level wise, and it has nothing to do with any of your physical attributes in real life. When men were playing other men (say there’s 10 of them) they know each other’s ranking and they react accordingly, with deference to higher ranked players. Women were the same amongst exclusively female players, but their feedback was less vile to begin with (I find what some men call ‘banter’ amongst themselves to be a good reason for them to have a therapist). Now what happens when these two groups mix? Would you like to hazard a guess? When mixed, who got the most negative and vile feedback, men or women? Women, of course, well done. And were those women with the worst feedback higher or lower skilled players? Think about it. No one likes a threat… So the highest skilled female players got the worst feedback. You’d think that those who have the lowest skills should get the worst feedback, regardless of gender, but that’s not how life works, is it? If you needed more evidence that high(er) skilled women are not going to have an easy road ahead, there’s also evidence supporting the ‘paradox of power’, where women in middle management have to deal with much more negative reactions to them, from both those above and below them in the organizational structure. And then last, anyone who falls outside of a norm tends to get penalized more, especially women. For some the idea of a working woman is already pushing that norm (it’s 2023, not 1923, but here we are). If you are then also highly educated, and a critical thinker who is very happy to voice their opinion (I’m just describing myself here, really) you have maybe defied the norm a bit too much. And, depending on your management, that can be a good thing, or a not-so-good thing… The feedback that you get in this case seems to be more of a reflection of your management’s perception of how women should perform in your role, than it is about your actual work. Now I’ve just outlined three reasons above why you might get feedback that’s absolutely shit. Issue is, this feedback has more to do with how the system is set up and their assumptions about how people should work (including women). Now to help you actually get something from this feedback (or be able to determine what of it is useful and what is just sexism) I recommend you create a feedback template in which critique points are accompanied by an example of the behaviour to be improved occurring and then a third column indicating what a better approach would look like. This structure makes it incredibly clear when something is just sexist bullshit. Obviously, do approach the feedback with some degree of humility. Just because you don’t agree with certain points doesn’t make them sexist. But as we all know, on average, women are more insecure than men, so maybe have a male colleague/friend read through the feedback with you and if they don’t really ‘get it’ than there’s nothing to get. And if this keeps up well then maybe it’s time to…


4. Cut your losses as you see ‘m If you did your due diligence in point 1, this should come as no surprise. Research what the average (or acceptable) duration is of being at a certain job level and when that time is soon to be up at the organisation where you’re currently at, start looking for a different job if it becomes clear there is nothing you can do about progressing upwards. If all my tips in ‘How to upgrade your job using behavioural science’ don’t even make a dent, it’s time to move on. And the best time to look for a job is always when you still have one. Another piece of advice is to have a mentor. I really like mentors, but the irony is, most of mine have still been men (I don’t know how that happened either, but here we are). Someone in your field, of your own gender (female as per this article) with (a bit) more experience can talk you through this minefield. It’s really important to learn from the experience of others. It can be incredibly insightful. In addition to mentorship make sure you also network well. Know which other units and organisations there are around you. Don’t just network with women though (but being part of a ‘women in BeSci’ network would definitely be useful, I’m sure), network with everyone – just because it casts the net wider. And don’t be sentimental about it. If your goal is to get ahead, then get ahead. Your colleagues will understand and I’m sure you can still meet them for a boozy brunch or a Love is Blind binge. And don’t stay with an organisation out of fear of retaliation and burning bridges. If your management tells you to not take things too personal because it’s just business, well guess what? You moving onto better things is also just business. And managers can’t afford to talk smack about ex-employees. It looks incredibly bad on them. So don’t stay out of fear.



 


Alright, well that’s 4 points of advice on strategy, confidence, the system and moving on (and up!). Let me know if this article was useful to you, or if you think it’s utter rubbish (if it is, I do want your advice in return). Good luck!

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