Men enter a race: women enter a race they think they can win.

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Ann Collier & Sally Woodward, Sherwood PSF Consulting

A big thank you to Vincent Walsh, Professor of Human Brain Research at UCL, who recently treated the Sherwood Coaching group to a provocative talk on the science behind behavioural differences in men and women’s approaches to risk and probabilities.

Did you know?

  • In chess, female grandmasters use fewer aggressive opening moves than men.
  • Elite sportswomen typically play it safe earlier in the game than their male counterparts. Even Serena Williams, the world’s no 1 female tennis player will play not to lose, at an earlier stage than the male tennis player ranked 100th in the world.
  • Men make more investment decisions for the short term (sometimes winning headline grabbing returns), whereas the highest performing pension funds over longer periods tend to be run by women.
  • Most candidates who lose their deposits in General Elections are men. Female politicians tend to go for safer seats.

In a session designed to challenge our thinking, Professor Walsh explained that his research has revealed that men and women typically show different neurological responses in tests involving risk assessment and probabilities.  Counter intuitively perhaps, women have been shown in such tests to be more objective and accurate in assessing risk and probabilities than their male counterparts.

So what?

These neurologically based differences may help to explain why, in the business world, women are less likely to apply for roles or opportunities they do not feel fully qualified for. We often hear that men get more promotions and more pay rises, but they also get more rejections and negative results as a consequence of putting themselves forward more often. However, men typically bounce back from these setbacks to succeed eventually. On the other hand women tend to take feedback and rejection more personally, and are therefore likely to particularly benefit from a buddy to help them interpret feedback and assess promotion opportunities more objectively

In his work with young athletes, Professor Walsh has noticed that teenage boys offered the opportunity of trying for a place in an Olympic team will grab the opportunity (however remote), whilst their female team mates will consider the pros and cons, assess the chances of success and often talk themselves out of it. However, encouraging female athletes to aim for the next level, taking each stage as a discrete target, has been more successful in encouraging female athletes to stay in the game. In the business world this might equate to helping women identify next steps or sub goals, rather than focussing on one overarching goal by which they define their success or failure.

Now what?

Some suggestions for women seeking success at senior level or for those supporting women to achieve:

  • Recognise the extent of your own (and others’) tendencies towards these biases and when they might not be serving you well;
  • Write down the behaviour you want to experiment with instead. This fosters commitment to making the change;
  • Establish your goals early and share with those who can offer support;
  • Break down your goals into a series of achievable next steps;
  • Find a buddy to help you interpret feedback objectively and assess opportunities for advancement;
  • Apply / volunteer for roles you think you might not get – it shows you are enthusiastic and want to be considered for future opportunities (and you might be surprised!);
  • Above all be aware of how your mind-set might be holding you back – be ready to challenge how you assess and respond to risk and probabilities – always assuming that the potential ‘prize’ really matters and is what you really do want.
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