Women surgeons, leadership, and confidence

Did you happen to read this piece in The Atlantic on the Confidence Gap in April of this year?

If not, I’ll start by asking you to take a few minutes to read through it.  Yes, by definition I just violated my own “blog posts should be approximately 500 words” rule.   Then I want you to think about the last time you praised a successful man and a successful woman.  With rare exceptions, I strongly suspect that their responses differed.  Why?  A man will often respond in a way that shows they believe they deserve their success; sociologically, it’s simply how boys are programmed.  In stark contrast, a woman is more likely to tell you that she got lucky…that she happened to be in the right place at the right time…that she has succeeded because of exogenous factors that are in fact outside of her control.  The woman who publicly owns her success, who takes credit for it, is a rare thing.  With the number of highly successful women I know, particularly in surgery, I simply can’t believe that women are succeeding because of luck and men are succeeding because of talent.  To hear us talk, though, you would be left with that impression.

One of the critical impacts of women’s tendency to underestimate their talent is that they aren’t considered for or don’t ask for “stretch” positions.  While men are promoted or ask for leadership roles based upon their potential, women are promoted and ask for leadership roles based upon their accomplishments.  In fairness, the underpinnings of this phenomenon probably lie both with leadership and with those seeking advancement, but it’s something that is both anecdotally and scientifically true.  Anecdotally, I know that I personally have been guilty of asking for leadership roles only when I can demonstrate that I am more-than-qualified based upon my prior accomplishments.  Scientifically, the article from The Atlantic cites data showing that women apply for promotion only when they are 100% qualified, as opposed to men who apply when they are 50% qualified.

While as women we may be guilty of undervaluing ourselves and our potential, we’re also hamstrung by “cognitive shortcuts” that result in systematic undervaluation of our work.  While we want desperately to believe that we’re functioning in a meritocracy, self-promotion (and perhaps a bit of good-old-boy network?!?) seems to make a substantial difference in achievement of leadership roles and career advancement.

Obviously the generation of a “solution” to this issue is complicated by basic social mores, the acculturation of boys and girls, and the fundamentally different communication styles typically demonstrated by men and women.  I don’t have a simple fix for those things.  What we can do, however, is to move these issues from a place of unconscious bias to a place where we can discuss them openly and honestly.  To the men who mentor women surgeons (or who are in positions to sponsor women surgeons), please look at what we’re capable of, not just what we’ve already done.  Be a multiplier for us by putting us into those “stretch” roles and let us excel.  To my women surgeon colleagues, ASK for that role you aspire to, even if you think you’re not quite ready.  Don’t come to the table with excuses about why you’re not there yet and don’t point our your deficiencies.  Come to the table with faith in your ability to excel.  If our talents aren’t being fully used, it shouldn’t be because we’re not offering.

(With thanks to Justin Dimick for encouraging me to write something on this…even if that was about 6 weeks ago.)