Women execs have self-doubt, choose to 'lean back'

After a revealing conversation with a top female executive in Singapore, ZDNet's Eileen Yu wonders if women often have self-doubt and discusses why this may not necessarily be a bad thing.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Do female executives think and reflect differently than their male counterparts in the workplace? I think they do.

Self-doubt doesn't reflect any inadequacy and shouldn't be deemed a weakness.

I had an insightful conversation with Singapore Pools CMO Marilyn Ling which led me to wonder if female executives were more reflective and often had self-doubt, resulting in a tendency to pull back rather than appear aggressive in the workplace.

In her book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg looks at women's progress in leadership roles and offer up advice on negotiation techniques, mentorship, and building a rewarding career. She said they should "lean in", take risks, and chase their goals with gusto.

"The blunt truth is that men still run the world," Sandberg says in her book. "Of the 195 independent countries in the world, only 17 are led by women. Women hold just 20 percent of seats in parliaments globally."

In the U.S., only 14 percent of CXO positions and 17 percent sit on boards. "While women continue to outpace men in educational achievement, we have ceased making real progress at the top of any industry." Despite strong feminist lobbying over the past three decades, American women in 2010 were paid 77 cents for every dollar men made, compared to 59 cents in 1970, she points out.

These stats are disheartening, especially for women in the male-dominated IT industry.

While Sandberg's book refers mostly to the struggles working mothers face trying to balance career and family, these challenges can be extended to how women lead in the workplace.

As I spoke with Marilyn, whom I first met a decade ago when she was CIO of Singapore Pools, I was struck by her humility and self-deprecative nature. "Staff must have been asking if I had the qualifications and experience to lead in this role," she joked, referring to the early days when she had just taken up hew current role as CMO in 2008.

She thought she could tap her years as CIO to resolve the company's business issues, but when she tried to offer suggestions on how to use the IT system to deliver certain services, there were blank faces around the table.

"I wasn't sure whether it was because I appeared as if I was trying to tell people I know [how things work], and they weren't happy. I went to reflect on this... I thought perhaps I appeared to be a smart aleck so I learnt not to say too much, and offered my views only when asked. It wasn't nice either because the [current] CIO had to do his job.

"Maybe I overstepped my boundaries, I don't know... Sometimes, we need to know where the boundaries are, but it was a struggle initially," she recalled.

Strange as it may sound, I found Marilyn's self-doubt endearing. Having covered a testosterone-filled industry for over 15 years, I see her willingness to question her own actions and reflect on how she could have reacted differently as refreshing.

I can't imagine someone like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg doing the same, or at least, admit publicly to having doubts.

Some may think people in leadership positions shouldn't acknowledge their shortcomings or expose any self-doubt, as it makes them appear vulnerable when they should be leading with conviction. But I ask why not.

Self-doubt doesn't reflect any inadequacy and shouldn't be deemed a weakness. In comparison, people who feel they're already good enough at what they do would feel little need to seek improvements.

Marilyn, for instance, fueled by her self-confessed lack of credentials after her appointment as CMO, went back to school to earn a graduate diploma in marketing. "It's to educate myself and to learn the basics, you know, Marketing 101. I used to get a bit lost when I conversed with other marketing peers because I didn't understand the terminologies."

So rather than "lean in", top women executives like Marilyn sometimes choose to "lean back", reflect, and exhibit a willingness to admit they can always do things differently, better. It doesn't mean they lack self-confidence, it just means they have the balls to recognize they too aren't perfect.

I've seen this quality more often in female professionals and it says a lot about the importance of their place in the industry.

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