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As well as tackling sexism women – and men – need to break free of their psychological chains.

Last week I assessed someone for a senior position at a FTSE100 company. I have spent eight years doing such assessments. They involve a half day interview and a range of psychometric tests that lead to a 2000 report in which I offer a recommendation about whether the candidate should be hired or not, and how they can better develop themselves either way. This most recent session was a slam dunk. The person was the most impressive candidate I had seen in all those eight years, having done around 400 assessments.

The person was a woman, I’ll call her Anna. Now, there is nothing surprising about that.  Despite the appalling statistics on women leaders in business (it is a ridiculous and embarrassing truism that there are more David’s than women serving as FTSE 100 CEOs (7 woman, 9 Dave’s). Yet, of course, there is nothing about being a woman that means you are less capable of effective leadership than a man.

I know, by the way, that even saying “woman” and “man” is controversial to some in these “woke” days but I am gong to assume that, while there is some gender fluidity, there is also a meaning to those words that 99% of us understand and appreciate. I also thing there are gender traits that ring true too, and that are not constructs but biologically based. I think, for example, that men do tend to be more aggressive and women do tend to be more caring. Not, of course, every man and every woman.

That’s why I started with the example of Anna. She is a specific example that goes against the general picture that I’m about to draw. For what was unusual about Anna wasn’t that she seemed to be the most capable leader I had ever assessed but her answer to the last question I always ask. ”Where next?”. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “Two years ago I would have said being in the C-suite in a FTSE 100 company, heading up my function. Now I want to be CEO”.

That level of confidence is rare in anyone but I think its rarer in women. (Most) men have a sense of entitlement that (most) women just don’t have. Research shows that the typical man, if a job requires five skills or experiences, will think, “Well, I’m great at two of those, OK at another two and shaky on the last” but he will say, “I am totally qualified across all that”. The typical woman will think exactly the same but she will then say, “Actually, I don’t have enough experience for this job”. They therefore might go down so well at the interview, or, more likely won’t apply in the first place. If the man does get the job he will likely be pressing for promotion and increased salary from the beginning. The typical woman, even if they get the job, will probably not. This gender “entitlement imbalance” is a major factor along with what my 12 year old daughter calls “everyday sexism” for the gender leadership and pay gaps.

There are also other factors too, such as the fact that women tend to have career “damaging” breaks to have children that interrupt their paths to the top, and which almost always lead to childcare responsibilities that far outweigh men’s, no matter how great Dads we are. Motherhood also, let’s be honest, leads some (again, not all) women to reassess their priorities and maybe deprioritise the immense effort needed to rise up the ranks to the top.

One study suggests that woman (as a whole) want to be really senior business leaders less than (the average) man “23% of CEOs felt that the decision not to pursue their career ambitions is made by the women themselves. They, no longer, stay keen to live with the stress inherent in the toughest leadership roles. Their aggression, drive and commitment to career growth slow-down as other personal priorities take centre stage”.

Even if there was some truth in that it doesn’t really matter. Because for sure, enough women want those top jobs. Even if there is a slight difference in hunger for the most senior jobs between the genders that would explain why there might be 45 women to 55 men serving as FTSE100 CEOS not the pitiful 7 to 93 we see today. That gap is obviously down to other factors.

At CDP, the leadership consultancy I run we use psychology to work on a deep level when assessing and developing people and organisations. One of the ideas we use is that of core pathogenic beliefs (or CPBs). These are false assumptions, often unconscious, about ourselves and the world that might have made sense once but don’t know. My book “Create Space” tells 12 stories of such CPB’s and how they sabotage people’s success. An example would be the woman whose parents let her down badly and who grew up not being able to trust people. Later in life that fear is not so appropriate and yet she keeps a barrier between herself and others and treats her colleagues as if they are always about to let her down, constantly being vigilant and being perceived as untrusting and controlling by those around her. (You can read more about CPBs in our thought paper).

At CDP we have discovered that teams and even whole organisations can have CPBs too, like when Travis Kalanick put “always hustle” at the heart of Uber’s values. A statement that is, at best, ambiguous about how ethical one should be. The CPB? “We need to sometimes cross the line to succeed”. In fact, of course, it led to his failure.

So, and here’s the interesting idea: Could genders have CPBs too? Not, as I’ve stressed throughout, every man and woman, but the typical ones?

Here’s my suggestion of what these might be:

Typical male CPB?

“I feel confident, I can do this, in fact I’m entitled to it, and more, and its OK for me to push for what I want.”

Typical female CPB?

“I am not always so confident, maybe I can’t do this. What will people think? I better be grateful for what I’ve got.”

Incidentally I think that the opposite train of thinking can co-exist with each of these. So often, in my experience, men, deep down, also have “imposter syndrome“, they are just better at repressing it and not letting their internal states be reflected on the outside.

Importantly I also think there is a third CPB at play, one that society as a whole shares (or at least a sizeable majority), on an unconscious level, at least to some extent.

Typical society CPB?

“Men can be bold and ruthless, women shouldn’t be like that. Men who demand things are ambitious, woman who do the same are pushy. Maybe men are more natural leaders?”

Absolute nonsense of course but deep rooted nonetheless?

I think this faulty thinking comes from ancient times when physical strength (a largely male characteristic) was vitally important, literally a matter of life and death. As a psychologist with an interest in evolution I can see how there would still be unconscious traces of that in everyone’s minds today. This, of course, is reinforced by the thousand of years of patriarchy that ensued.

As well as everything else that is rightly being done, of which great mentoring and sponsorship seems the most effective, (the Centre for Creative Leadership have some great resources to support this) I think we also need to examine and dismantle these CPBs.

That is what we do at CDP; Help identify and tackle people’s CPBs about themselves and the world so that they can maximise their potential, whether those CPBs be about their gender or anything else.

The good news?

I showed my 12 year old daughter this article and when she came to the suggested CPBs she laughed and said, ”That’s bullshit… and those guys that think that, they don’t really. Woman just admit things more and then get on with it”.

Does she really believe that deep down? I hope so but better still I really think so.

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