Two weeks ago I spoke as part of a workshop for the Undergraduate Women in Business conference at NYU Stern School of Business. The workshop was called “Necessary Conversations” and the overall theme was how to grab a seat at the table, speak up, and have the conversations that matter — whether pitching for an investment, negotiating a raise, giving difficult feedback, asking for a mentor relationship, you name it.
It seems undergraduate women at NYU Stern are facing the same difficulties that women at many top business schools face: they are underperforming their male peers, in large part because they hold back in classroom discussions. When digging deeper they realized that female students prefer to speak only when they are absolutely confident in their answer or when they feel completely prepared to enter the debate. They tend to take longer to raise their hand, have shorter and more concise comments, and often self-edit to manage their out-of-classroom image. As a result, these totally awesome women are losing ground before the game even starts.
Now anyone who knows me knows that I have little difficulty in speaking up or starting a debate. Whether it was because I grew up on a stage, or have been a giant since the age of 12, or never worried about my out-of-classroom image because it sat squarely in “social outcast” territory, I have always felt comfortable being seen and heard. It’s not always enjoyable, and I don’t always do it well, but I continue to do it because a) it is an important muscle to develop and, more importantly, b) there are things I want and I am responsible for making sure I get them.
So I talked with the NYU women about this, and along with it, the concept of “fake it until you make it”. In this particular context, I meant the vocal behavior that can either reinforce your argument and project your authority on the subject or completely undermine everything you are saying: the modifiers (“sort of”, “probably”), the tentative verbs (“it may”, “we’re trying to”), the shallow breaths and fast talking that raise your pitch to that of a pre-teen girl, the sub-audible volume.
Why would anyone believe what you are saying when your behavior indicates even you don’t believe it? And perhaps even more detrimental: don’t set up an argument but leave the audience to infer what you want out of it. Forgive my crassness, but that’s like oratorical blue balls. How can anyone give you what you want if you don’t actually ask?
The women rose to the occasion and the workshop turned out to be incredibly interactive, with five pairs courageous enough to get up and pitch a new business idea. Afterward several women came up and asked follow-up questions, and it struck me that nearly all of the questions revolved around asking permission. When was it okay to be wrong? What if they came across as too cocky? Would some people not like that they were asking for what they wanted? How do they convince people they are qualified to do the thing they really wanted to do?
(Perhaps the most common question: How did I convince anybody that an opera-singing-mathematician should be a CEO of a fashion company? Easy: I don’t try to convince them. I’m doing it anyway, and they can just watch and see it work out.)
This frustrates me to no end. Listen: I know that most of those high-achieving, type-A young women got to where they are (that is, an elite business school at an elite university) because they followed the rules. I know, because that’s the same approach I took all through high school and college. Get the syllabus; figure out the deadlines and the metrics the professor will grade against; get an A. It’s the Suzuki approach to learning music. It’s the color-by-numbers method for life, and it’s feels safe, but ultimately it’s extremely dangerous. Why? Because the first step you take after graduation (and every step thereafter) doesn’t come with a syllabus or a sticker for doing a good job. And the likelihood of you making mistakes is virtually guaranteed. (And if you’re not making mistakes, you are playing it safe, so boom! Mistake. QED.)
Which means these extremely talented women who could be charging into the world and leaving a dent are instead tentatively walking their imagined tightrope for fear of falling off. And for each tentative step they take there are some (equally awesome) guys bounding in with fast, decisive steps because they’ve been breaking rules and hearing “no” since they were toddlers. So who’s more likely to attract the opportunities and the promotions and the mentors? See? Frustrating.
But those NYU women are persistent and now that they’re talking about this, they’re not willing to drop it. We’ve continued the conversation since, and after a particularly engaging lunch last week they’ve agreed to try an experiment later this spring involving something totally out of their comfort zone: improvisational comedy with strange creatures known as actors. We’re still working through the details, but the goal is to take them into this brave new world of thinking on your feet in front of an audience.
Step 1: stand up. Step 2: speak out. Step 3: take on the world. Stay tuned for updates on the project!