Confident or Imposing? Self-Monitoring Can Lead to Rewards for Women Leaders

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By Katie Corner (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0) None of us want to be the disliked “career woman” who speaks up quickest and seizes projects only to get promoted faster. She's the one who doesn’t mind bad-mouthing her peers to make herself stand out. She's the one who talks with this unwarranted confidence, as if she is always right. About everything.

How many overly confident, aggressive women like this do you know? Probably very few, as most women don’t fall into this category. Research shows that traits such as aggressiveness are typically associated with males and masculine leadership. As a woman very early in my own career, I too occasionally slip too far on the other side of the spectrum: meek as a mouse, feeling slightly overrated and wondering how I fooled everyone into securing another dream job. It turns out I’m not alone.

Beating Imposter Syndrome

I first stumbled upon the Impostor Syndrome when my sister, also an electrical engineer, sent me a link the handbook How to Feel as Bright and Capable as Everyone Seems to Think You Are.

The first thing you learn is that technical females with ambitions to be a founder, CTO or a similar position are at a very high risk of feeling like impostors. As a demographic, these technical women leaders fulfill a whopping 5 of the 8 risk groups -- people who are successful early on, people who are a first or minority in their workplace or field, people who work in companies with no well-defined review process, people working in jobs atypical for their gender, and people in creative fields.

A side effect of impostor syndrome the way women speak about themselves -- diminishingly! I observed this firsthand while completing a year of engineering education research at CU Boulder -- our study focused on undergraduate, high-achieving women engineers.

We found that men and women use different language to explain their successes and failures. In separate settings, both men and women in the college would lament about certain classes: “Oh discrete math? Yeah, I totally failed that class.”

The differentiator?

When inquiring about their specific mark or grade in the class, the men had actually received a failing grade in the class while the women had typically received a passing grade. Yet in their words, both genders had “failed.” I listened to this phase repeatedly, even from women who had received A’s and B’s, which is above the college’s 2.9 average GPA. My research team observed this shifted semantic scale for the other side of the spectrum too. Generally speaking, women would say they did “OK” when receiving an “A-“ while males might say they “rocked it.” Unsurprisingly, both sets were happy with A’s.

A New York Times article interviewed four top female scientists in their field echoed the language difference. Dr. Tal Rabin, a cryptography researcher at I.B.M, said about a recent conference attendee, “I remember standing next to one of my co-authors, and he was talking to some other guy, and he was telling him, ‘I have this amazing result. I just did this, I just did that.’ And I was sitting and thinking there, what result is he talking about? Until he got to the punch line. It was a joint result. It was a result of mine also. I would have never spoken about my result in the superlatives that the guy was speaking about it.”

“Masculine traits” - Friend or Foe?

Suppose Dr. Rabin chose to speak more like her colleague, with more pronouns about herself than her team. Would that be a egotistical move? After all, research has shown that there are penalties to women’s success when they display stereotypically masculine behaviors. Can not “being feminine enough” actually have a backlash effect and hold you back?

A recent study found that women who can self-monitor or adjust their masculine and feminine behaviors, based on context, are promoted more. High-monitoring women receive three times as many promotions as their low-monitoring female peers. High-monitoring women were promoted more than both “masculine” and “feminine” men, regardless of whether the men were good self-monitors. (Try out their 18-question survey to see where you sit on the self-monitor spectrum).

Female Founders Don’t Have to Be Queen Bees

There’s no doubt about it: it’s an exciting time to be a woman in technology. Thanks to organization like Women 2.0, the opportunity and support for women to start companies continues to rise. Research tells us that women who can blend stereotypical masculine and feminine styles will be more successful and be raised to the top.

Thus, my final words are a warm request to the many bright women I see years ahead of me in their careers -- build more organizations immune to research shows that some women who make it to the top actually oppose the women’s movement (“If I did it, you can.”), instead of helping to defer negative stereotypes or improve the conditions for other women and girls interested in start-ups.

While most women I know would never request special treatment or an unfair advantage based on their gender (myself included!), I am hopeful that women in a position of power will embrace and create company cultures inclusive to the natural styles of both men and women.

About the guest blogger: Katie Corner is a product manager at BOKU, a mobile payments startup. Prior to BOKU, Katie interned with Qualcomm, Microsoft and Google. She writes about design, technology and product management on her blog, Sprucing It Up. Katie holds B.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter at @katherinecorner.