Women's History Month: Attitude Isn't Everything

Authored by

Kelly Young

Chief Executive Officer

It is well known that women have faced structural barriers to progress in the workplace, such as gender bias, traditional parenting roles, and power dynamics. In this Women’s History Month, we thought it might be interesting to look at this subject from a different angle, and examine some of the psychological influences which may be at work – both intrinsic and learned. Various studies have looked at how women and men tend to view themselves and their strengths, and how this ultimately filters into the workplace – regardless of socioeconomic background and status.

It starts early. A study by academics of the University of Illinois (UIC) published in Science magazine in 2017 concluded that by the age of 6 girls are already absorbing gender stereotypes which disadvantage them. In a study of 400 5-year-old children, girls regarded themselves equally able as boys. They were given a task which was described as being for ultra-smart kids, and the girls enjoyed it as much as the boys. However, by age 6 or 7 most of the girls had lost interest.1

At this stage, the girls seemed to start to respond to social messages to which they had been subliminally exposed. Boys tend to be more assertive and may brag about their abilities and achievements. Girls tend to be more conciliatory and will look at points of view other than their own. My Acadian colleagues may regard me as an outlier here, but the general tendency stands!

The UIC study concluded that girls began to absorb the “I am great” message emanating from the boys. Children of different ages were told a story about someone described as ultra-smart. Asked to describe this character, all the children tended to pick someone of their own gender. After about 6, the girls started to assume that the story concerned a boy.

So their self-image was already changing. Interestingly, though, their assessment of their own academic ability did not change in the same way. Asked to describe who would get the best grades in school, the over-6’s did not show any difference between girls and boys choosing their own gender. So the girls’ idea of extreme smartness went beyond a narrow judgment of academic ability and into something linked to a more intangible sense of achievement. While they retained a confidence in their gender’s raw talent, they were still being unconsciously nudged towards less exacting activities and roles. It is dispiriting that this seems to be happening so very early in life. It’s likely to have a formative influence throughout their lives.

How about later in life? There are studies which suggest that this phenomenon has echoes throughout school and into the workplace. It is well attested that girls maintain their academic confidence and commitment throughout school, consistently outperforming boys in all major subjects while having broadly similar IQs. We can surmise that that the explanation lay in the greater self-discipline shown by girls: they work and concentrate harder and are more prepared to see the value of delayed gratification. Indeed, there are academic studies reaching this conclusion, though I think most people would know it intuitively.

As we know, however, this academic advantage often does not continue at work. Women have tended consistently to lose ground. Could this be an echo of the UIC study’s conclusions about girls absorbing the “I am great” message from boys? A piece in The Atlantic magazine pulled together some interesting data on the subject, citing the work of Prof Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon University (author of Women Don’t Ask) which showed that men asked for a raise four times more often than women, and that women typically asked for 30% less than men.2

Psychologists at Cornell and Washington State Universities created the Dunning-Kruger effect, which seeks to measure people’s tendency to over- or underestimate their abilities. They gave male and female students a science-based test. Before the test, they were asked to assess their own scientific ability on a scale of 1 to 10. Women assessed themselves on average at 6.5, and men at 7.6. After the test they were asked how well they thought they had done. Women suggested 5.8, men 7.1. The actual outcomes were barely different between the two genders. 3

In another test, Hewlett Packard, looking to get more women into their senior management, found that men would typically apply for a promotion if they thought they could meet 60% of the new job’s requirement.4 Women would only apply if they could do the job in its entirety. Men, therefore, may chance their arm for an advancement, while an equally able woman might be more likely to hold back. If so, this is a double tragedy. First, a woman’s career may not reach its potential; and secondly, companies across the board may not be making best use of their human capital.

This is a telling illustration of the well documented ‘impostor syndrome’ which might go to the top of the corporate world. Here is Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Meta (Facebook as was): “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” Can you imagine Steve Jobs having said that? Or Jeff Bezos?

I am emphatically not banging an anti-male drum here. No one suggests that Jobs or Bezos bluffed their way to success! The same with all the brilliant male colleagues with whom I’m proud to work. But it does seem that there is a more or less gentle headwind which women encounter in their careers. How do we address that?

Just to be aware of the issue is a big step forward. Understanding the wiring of men and women creates the opportunity to adjust for it – not in terms of positive discrimination, in my opinion, but in terms of shaping the career environment. For a company like Acadian, whose investment process is historically based on understanding the effects of irrational human behaviour, this ought to be meat and drink! In fact, we have for years been looking at ways to increase female representation at all levels of the company. And fortunately, we are not unique in that, so we are not starting from ground zero.

There is still much that we can do. I am a strong believer in the value of mentoring and coaching for multiple purposes. In this specific context it can be used systematically to encourage women to analyse their strengths and challenge the preconceptions which they may unconsciously hold.

We want to create a virtuous circle: more women in senior roles means more positive female role models and thus more women recognising the possibilities open to them. Incidentally, the UIC study of young children (described above) also concluded that more positive female role models could be instrumental in rolling back some of the stereotypical messages they start to absorb at 6 years old.

I believe we have made good progress at Acadian. I am proud to be a female Chief Marketing Officer, and proud to be one of three women on the company’s Executive Committee. But we need to be constantly looking at ourselves. It is a continuing process and there is no room for complacency.



1. Emergent Attitudes Towards Brilliance. Science Magazine 2017. Lin Bian, Sarah-Jane Leslie and Andrei Cimpian
2. Women Don’t Ask: The High Cost of Avoiding Negotiation and Positive Strategies for Change. Bantam Books 2007. Linda C. Babcock and Sara Laschever.
3. How Chronic Self-Views Influence (and Potentially Mislead) Estimates of Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003. David Dunning and Ehrlinger.
4. How Chronic Self-Views Influence (and Potentially Mislead) Estimates of Performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003. David Dunning and Ehrlinger.