Are women giving up on career success?

Heidi Grant Halvorson is associate director of the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School and a popular blogger on motivational science. She co-authored The Psychology of Goals and is author of  9 Things Successful People Do Differently and Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals. I recently interviewed her on career success for women, how work/life balance affects their careers and what motivates them.

AB: You’ve obviously achieved great success in your career. Do you think it’s been more difficult at times to rise in the ranks because you’re a woman? Why or why not?

HGH: In academia and research, the big obstacles still tend to be work-life balance issues. For women, the years during which you are trying to get tenure tend to overlap with the years during which you are caring for young children.  Women who choose to have families have a very difficult time coping with 60+ hour work week expectations.  And sadly, you are judged as “not serious enough” or “not dedicated enough” when you can’t put in the hours that your peers can.

AB: There’s been a lot of research suggesting that women don’t ask for what they want, and expect to be rewarded because they work hard. Has that been your observation as well?

HGH: Assertiveness is certainly a double-edged sword for women.  It’s a trait that is consistent with our ideas of what “successful business people” are like and what men are like.  But for women there is a contradiction, because assertiveness is not part of the female stereotype.  So women can easy feel torn between their two identities, and end up self-sabotaging by trying to maintain their “femininity” (i.e. non-assertiveness) in a male-dominated workplace.

AB: There was a More magazine study that found 43 percent of women surveyed reported they are less ambitious now than they were a decade ago. And only 25 percent of the 500 women – age 35 to 60 – say they’re working toward their next promotion. You’ve written about taking on too many commitments and have first-hand experience with that. Can you talk about where you think women are in their lives right now in terms of balancing their personal and professional lives?

HGH: Still struggling with it, honestly.  The truth is that we can’t have it all.  No one can.  We need to make peace with that.  You can’t be with your children every second of the day AND work 40+ hours a week AND work out five times a week AND write that novel.  We need to make choices – and for different women, it will mean different choices.  There is no one solution that is right for all of us. I think more and more women are beginning to understand this, and the conversation is turning away from how a modern women should live, and becoming one about options.

AB: You are a psychologist who studies motivation. Is motivation different for women than it is for men?

HGH: Well, there are certainly differences.  One that I’ve studied, along with my mentor Carol Dweck (author of Mindset) is how we explain our successes and failures.  Women – particularly bright and talented women – are more likely to think of their abilities as fixed and innate, so they are more prone to self-doubt when something becomes difficult, such as saying “”I guess I’m just not good at this sort of thing.”  Men are a bit more likely to see their abilities as malleable, able to develop with effort and experience.  They are right, incidentally.  But because women judge themselves so harshly, it can undermine their motivation to succeed.

AB: What about for younger women…is motivation different for them than for their older counterparts?

HGH: Younger women(and men are more likely to see their goals as opportunities for advancement and accomplishment, so they are more optimistic and more likely to embrace risk.  As we age, we become more concerned with safety and security,  with hanging on to what we’ve worked so hard to achieve, rather than getting more.  As a result, we become a bit more cautious and risk-averse.

AB: How do you handle rejection or disappointment in your career? Can you provide an example?

HGH: When you think about your goals in terms of making progress, rather than achieving perfection, it makes setbacks a lot easier to take and it’s easier to stay motivated.  Even when things don’t turn out the way I had hoped, I try to focus on how I have improved and where I am today compared to last week, last month, or a year ago.

I’ve been working on a new book, and recently my editor and I decided to drastically alter the structure of the book because it just wasn’t working.  That was deeply disappointing, since I had worked hard on it and really thought my original idea was a good one.  But I tried to stay focused on the progress I had made, and the fact that in the end, it would be a much better book for all that I had learned in the process.

AB: If you could give women no more than three pointers about how to move into bigger roles at their company, what would they be?

  • Be specific about what you want. Don’t just think “I want to get ahead,” but figure out exactly what success will look like.  What position do you want, and when?  Getting specific helps us stay motivated, and makes it easier to see what steps you need to take to reach your goal.
  • When you find yourself doubting your ability, remember that ability grows with experience and effort.  If you think you can’t be good at something, you are wrong.  Don’t say “I’m just not good at this.” Way “I’m not good at this yet, but I will be.”

AB: What would be your advice to a young woman preparing to graduate from college within the next year as far as determining her career goals and reaching them?

Make plans, but be willing to revise your plans as you go along.  Too often, we feel committed to paths that turn out to be more costly or less rewarding than we imagined they would be.  But we don’t want to think of ourselves as “quitters,” and we focus too much on the sunk costs: the time and resources we’ve already put into something that would be “wasted” if we quit now.  But it turns out that knowing when to switch gears – to replace a goal that isn’t working for you with one that will – is a powerful predictor of lifelong happiness and well-being.

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  • I’m very hopeful of opportunities for women. Checking out my connections on linkedin, I see many women who are in prominent positions in recognizable companies. What women need to do is stop looking at gender and aim high on what they want to achieve. 

  • Anita

    I think that women need to make an effort to help other women more. We get so busy with our careers and our families, that mentoring another woman seems to be beyond our reach. While I think social networking offers a great chance to connect, we all need to make a commitment to reach out more to help another woman who needs it, such as connecting on forums such as this! Thanks for your comments.