Fear of B: Why aiming for perfection could be holding you back at work

Boost your chance of employment success with a perfect cover letterHave you ever turned down an opportunity because you ‘aren’t ready yet’ or you  ‘want to wait for the right moment’ or ‘have a lot more to get right.’

This desire, while rooted in the laudable goal of getting better at any task, can hold you back as you wait for a perfection which will never come.  Women’s ultra-high standards for themselves is the heavily gendered ‘Fear of B’ phenomenon. You may remember this from your school days, but it plays a huge role in how you look at risk, confidence and developing your skills for the remainder of your career.

Claudia Goldin, a Harvard professor, noticed that while over half of new university entrants taking her Economics classes were women, less than 30% eventually received degrees in that field. To understand why, she assessed the grades students earned as they began their university years.

Goldin discovered that as a woman’s earliest grades fell in the first year below perfection, their chances of switching to a degree they perceived as less difficult increased dramatically. In fact, for every B a woman received in an ‘Introduction to Economics’ course, the chances of her staying with the degree halved. Men, on the other hand, who received Bs were as likely to stay the course and earn Economics degrees as their counterparts who received As.

Men genuinely seemed less concerned by their lower grades. Catherine Rampell wrote how this ultimately affects earnings in the Washington Post in 2014. She wrote: ‘Male students could be more overconfident … effectively, college bros shrug off gentleman’s C’s … as unrepresentative of their true brilliance.’  The tendency for women to leave courses early they fear they can’t perfect is a concerning trend, particularly as we need far more workers in STEM fields, subjects about which women often have the same reservations. This affects We Are the City readers who are students, employees to even business owners. This reminded me of a technology event where I was speaking. When the Head of HR was asked for his advice on how women could get ahead he answered: ‘Aim for 80% Perfect’!

Well said, but I think most workplaces would get further if they rewarded employees based on what they delivered, rather than by what they thought they could deliver. When I was writing ‘The Con Job: Getting Ahead for Competence in a World Obsessed with Confidence’ I interviewed nearly 40 leaders from 12 different countries about the overvaluing we place on confidence at work – when most people know we’d all be better off valuing competence more.

I discussed gender differences in confidence with Dr Elaine Eisenman, the former Dean of Executive and Enterprise Education at Babson College in Boston. In her work promoting entrepreneurship, she notes a difference between the confidence men and women display when setting up a business. Eisenman observes:

Starting any business is a risk, but men don’t doubt they’ll be successful. The women spend more time in the ‘What happens if I fail?’ mindset, looking at the complexity of the situation, imagining all the worst-case scenarios. Women are likely to weigh up what they risk losing if they fail against how long it took them to get the success they have now.

So for men, it’s dichotomous. It’s either ‘I can achieve that challenge or I can’t’, with a strong tendency towards ‘Of course I can!’ For women, it’s more often a complex inner debate based on the implications of failure against what she has now.

For many groups who are mindful of the precarious balance of what they have now, this mindset is incorrectly interpreted as a lack of confidence. Eisenman finishes: ‘Women are more likely to think: “if you can’t do it perfectly, don’t do it at all”. This mindset has real implications for ‘adaptive realism’. This has a major effect on confidence as it’s the way we lower or heighten our expectations depending on the likelihood of success for people like you.

Elaine Eisenman recalled a conversation she’d had with a frustrated father, who identified these issues in his daughter. His daughter had earned scholarships for a bio-engineering degree but shocked her parents just a few months after starting university by saying she was dropping the course to opt for education. Eisenman describes: While she was doing ‘okay’, other students were surpassing her. She recognised she understood enough to teach the concepts to others. However, she didn’t think she could excel in being a bio-engineering specialist herself. Her father was horrified at how ‘typically female’ his brilliant daughter was being;  panicking at how she wouldn’t meet her own expectations.

This perspective is something I’ve also heard from many parents I’ve spoken to in the years since I wrote Beyond the Boys Club. While sure their own children will succeed, parents I’ve met are often a bit more optimistic about the competence their daughters show. This is in comparison to the statistical greater likelihood of future career success, whatever the topic, of their sons.

About the author

Suzanne Doyle-Morris PhD is the founder of InclusIQ and has been helping women working in male-dominated fields get the careers they want for nearly 20 years. She is also the author of ‘Beyond the Boys’ Club’ and ‘Female Breadwinners’ and her third book, ‘The Con Job’ is out now.





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