Warren Buffet famously remarked that he was successful because he only had to compete against half the population.
It may have been a joke, but Buffet’s words are a stinging reminder of the unequal treatment men and women have traditionally faced in leadership roles. There’s no question Buffet earned his success, but underlying his quip is the truth that, indeed, some odds were stacked in his favor.
When success comes—even in part—from an unearned advantage, we all pay a price. Inequity not only harms those on the short end of the stick, but also its supposed beneficiaries, albeit in different ways.
It may not sound intuitive, but when we focus on inequity’s one-sided impact we miss half the picture. It’s natural to assume that, in an inequitable environment, one group suffers and the other enjoys benefits and privileges. One party gets to feast at the table, while the other battles over the crumbs.
Dig deeper into the psychological costs of inequity, and you will find the beneficiary suffers too. For each way in which women bear the brunt of inequity, men also pay a price.
Different Expectations, Different Personalities
Psychologist Carole Dweck developed a theory of self-concept based on how people view their own intelligence. According to Dweck, we hold either an entity or incremental mindset, which directly influences our performance. Those who believe their intelligence is given—that they are innately smart—respond worse to challenges when compared with those who believe their intelligence is gained through hard work and effort.
In Dweck’s research, children praised for their intelligence tended to avoid challenges and preferred easy tasks. They were more interested in how they measured up to others than they were in improving their performance. By contrast, kids who were praised for their effort preferred challenging tasks, from which they could learn something new. They were more interested in finding new strategies for success than they were in how other children had performed.
To put it simply: A sense of advantage sows doubt over time, leading to weaker performance, a decreased sense of resilience, and poorer self-image throughout life.
How does this apply to leaders? Women and men face uneven expectations. A culture that casts men as better, smarter, and more capable than their female counterparts creates an unearned privilege for men. But it comes at a cost. When social expectations of performance bear no relationship to you, it’s a burden to uphold them, whether they are positive or negative. For men, like the children in Dweck’s study, these expectations of success can lead to feelings of fraud, fear of being “found out,” fear of letting people down, even poorer self-image, since you are praised for something that you suspect, deep down, isn’t you.
Missing the Point
Research shows that women feel more self-doubt and vulnerability than men. When confronted by a new task, they are more prone to question whether they can succeed.
But is self-doubt more problematic than overestimating your abilities? Or minimizing doubts? Or hiding mistakes and not asking for help to avoid looking vulnerable? All of these tendencies show up more heavily in men. Men are less conscious of doubt. Self-doubt may harm one’s own chances of advancement. But it also may, in the long run, improve an organization where one person’s vision cannot solve every issue.
Men aren’t encouraged to develop their social skills as women are. For men, self-reliance trumps intimate, supportive, and nurturing relationships with others. While women must balance family and work, men can rapidly climb the career ladder, disregarding household tasks such as nurturing children, doing chores, and running errands. If we just measure men’s and women’s differences in terms of career and earnings, we miss the fact that lack of friendship, estrangement from children and spouse, isolation, and dependency on others for creating a nurturing home life is by no means successful. In fact, social networks, intimacy, and the ability to sustain nurturing friendships have been cited as some of the possible reasons for the disparity between men and women’s life expectancy.
Let’s face it: Accepting the perks and benefits that come with social inequity is a Faustian bargain. The problems women and other disadvantaged groups face in succeeding are symptoms of a deeper disease: inequity. We all suffer from it, regardless of the roles we play.
Too often the social discourse on equality misses this point. We frame discussions of inequity in terms of privilege, altruism, or blame: how to use your privilege to help another, or becoming aware of how your advantage oppresses the other. Those approaches work—to a limited degree. They tend to influence people already primed to change their behavior. But for a large majority of people, motivation to change must begin with a reward: “What’s in it for me?”
The fact is that inequality is an equal opportunity offender. Both sides in an inequitable system suffer in different, yet similarly harmful ways. Gandhi knew this. Desmond Tutu knows this. The greatest activists for social justice know this. It’s time we calculated the true cost of inequity, to everyone in the system, because everyone in an inequitable system is a loser, even if we’re losing in different ways.