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August 31, 2021

The Equation for Success in Career & Love (or a Math Problem for Women who are Average at Math).


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There is a common narrative that one thing holding women back in life, love, and especially in the business sector is a lack of confidence.

This is one of the theories, or partial theories, as to why men excel in leadership. Men are seen as more confident, and confidence is a desirable quality in a leader.

However, as our collective interest in the socially constructed concept of gender grows and we do more sociological research, a number of studies have emerged which show that perhaps, this theory is not true. 

When I was in seventh grade, I earned a spot on our school’s competitive math team. Yes, that’s correct—it can’t get much nerdier. It was called MathCounts, and we went to competitions and solved math problems. There were four team members and one backup, in case any of the primary nerds became sick on the day of the state championship competition. We were four girls and one boy. (There is no gendered conclusion to be drawn from that information. I’m just setting the scene.)

I was the backup—excited to participate and relieved to not have to compete. The pressure to succeed and my fear of failure were too great. It turns out I’ve had anxiety since childhood. 

Most importantly, I still got a MathCounts T-shirt. 

I had confidence and excelled in math until ninth grade. Tenth grade was hit or miss. In eleventh grade, I stopped going to class, and from then on, I never learned more math, exponentially forgot what I knew, and majored in English in college.

Math was a strength of mine when I was 12. Now my strengths are communication, empathy, composing witty text messages, and many other stereotypically feminine traits that are expected of me and that I have consequently nurtured. Or was born with. 

This brings us to the present, where as an adult, when asked about my weaknesses in job interviews, I generally say math. I realize this is not the answer they are looking for, but I find it amusing, and because I think that humor is one of my strengths, I like to sneak it in where I can.

Never once in a job interview have I mentioned that I used to compete at math. It doesn’t feel like I’m downplaying my math skills. It feels honest. 

Perhaps, my subjectively honest perception of my (current) math skills is a lack of confidence. And perhaps this lack of confidence is holding me back from becoming a rich and powerful CEO. Or is it?

Perhaps it’s time to flip the narrative and say that women don’t suffer from a universal lack of confidence, but rather, are less likely to overrate themselves. Perhaps women thrive at self-awareness. 

Columbia Business University conducted a study with MBA students and math problems. The female and male participants performed about the same. A year later, the researchers brought back the same students and asked them to recall their performance. Most participants overrated their performance. Men consistently rated their performance as 30 percent better than it was, and women overrated themselves by 15 percent. The researchers maintain that the participants weren’t lying. They honestly believed their inflated perceptions of performance. 

Men honestly misrepresent their accomplishments 15 percent more than women do. Women are less likely to advance to leadership because we lack 15 percent of the ability to misrepresent our skills. Well look at that: it’s our fault we are not leaders! We are not confident enough to lie better about our math skills. Or could it be that our more adequate self-perceptions are tricking our supervisors into thinking we accomplish less. Our pathological self-awareness has been mislabeled as a lack of confidence. 

And what about when it comes to romance? Sociological studies from the University of Michigan indicate that men typically try to date women who are 25 percent “out of their league.” Anecdotally, this sounds true to my experience, in case anyone was wondering. (Although it is possible that I am overrating my desirability by the standard 15 percent, which would make the men I date only 10 percent under my league. I’m not sure who should feel better about that.)

According to the same study, women’s desirability decreases as we age and as we become more educated. (Peak desirability is a whopping 18 years old.)

I think the answer is clear. My skills plus my qualifications divided by my personality times my adequate level of self-awareness minus my fear of failure and the square root of my age equals: I will never have a successful career or romantic relationship. 

Or will I? If we use this simple equation, we may just be able to find a solution. 

If I want to succeed at my career, I need to lie about my skills by, let’s say, 20 percent, because if I am statistically average in my self-perceptions, I will already over inflate by 15 percent, which means I should intentionally lie by 15 percent more to match the male level, plus add another 5 because I don’t want to be just equal to the men I’m going up against, but better. 

In my next job interview, I will say that my strength is that I am 15 percent more honest than any male candidate, and my weakness is that I am 15 percent less confident in my math skills. 

And if I want to date a decent man? Taking into account, of course, that I am in my mid-30s with a master’s degree (which makes me drastically less desirable), I should look for someone who is around 55 percent out of my league. Is that even possible? If he is into me, I am automatically 25 percent out of his league, and he is honestly misrepresenting his qualities by another 30 percent. (Someone, please check my math here.)

What’s the lesson here for women? Well, obviously: lie. Upgrade your qualifications for job interviews and downgrade your education and age for dates with men. Be confident, but be careful to not come across as assertive or too confident because then you won’t be likeable.

Temper your confidence with empathy. On the date, don’t come across as desperate or incapable, but you can’t be too strong or independent either. Smile in a professional way in the job interview. Listen well and giggle at the right times during the date. Smile when he tells you to. If you get the job, don’t lack the confidence to negotiate for a higher salary, but expect to receive less than a man would for the same job. You can be funny, but not funnier than your date. You should know some stuff, but also, let your boss and your date explain the same stuff to you.

Have an opinion, but like, a soft one. It’s really not as hard as it sounds. 

And what is the lesson for men? When you think about your accomplishments, keep in mind that you really performed 30 percent worse than you think you did. You’re welcome. 

And what is the lesson for all of us, regardless of gender, biological sex, or sexuality? We don’t have to attach ourselves to any fixed traits based on our society’s gendered conditioning. Even our self-perceptions are malleable by external influences. 

There are all kinds of interesting sociological studies that measure gender differences (or lack thereof) in relation to characteristics such as empathy and math skills, just to name a couple. For example, in the book Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine summarizes many of these studies and one conclusion is that women and men may not differ so much in actual empathy but rather in how empathetic they would like to appear to others (and, perhaps, to themselves). Likewise, it appears that there is no shortage of people along the gender spectrum who easily offend, misunderstand, or steamroll right over the delicate signals of others, even as they maintain the self-perception of their own empathetic capacity.

Similarly, many studies found no real difference in math skills in men and women. The difference was in the self-perception—even to the point that sample groups given the same test showed different results when first asked to simply check a box of their gender. We are so conditioned to attach certain qualities to certain genders that we will adapt our own skills accordingly; even thinking of our gender momentarily affects how we perform it and other tasks. 

As it turns out, self-awareness is not the same thing as a lack of confidence and often, what appears to be confidence is actually just an over-inflation of skills or previous accomplishments. And truly, confidence is not the end-all-be-all trait of a good leader.  

Often, we take on stereotypically feminine or masculine traits because we are expected and conditioned to do so. These traits aren’t necessarily good or bad or right or wrong. Our personalities, like our genders, don’t have to be so fixed. We have some choice when it comes to deconditioning certain traits and fostering others. We can be who we want to be. It’s really only our society that has been telling us otherwise for too long.

Choose wisely. Decondition well. 

And don’t forget to show your work.


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