Women Underestimate their Performance, and that’s a Good Thing

I truly enjoyed Sheryl Sandberg’s commencement speech given at Barnard College last week. It was not only inspiring but featured a call to action that I love and support – that women can and should reach for higher heights in their careers, and that there are specific tactics they can employ to get there.

However, one part of the speech struck me as all wrong, and I wanted to highlight it here. Sheryl said:

Studies also show that compared to men, women underestimate their performance.  If you ask men and women questions about completely objective criteria such as GPAs or sales goals, men get it wrong slightly high; women get it wrong slightly low.  More importantly, if you ask men why they succeeded, men attribute that success to themselves; and women, they attribute it to other factors like working harder, help from others.  Ask a woman why she did well on something, and she’ll say, “I got lucky.  All of these great people helped me.  I worked really hard.”  Ask a man and he’ll say or think, “What a dumb question.  I’m awesome.”  So women need to take a page from men and own their own success.

I strongly disagree with the idea that either women or men should first credit themselves for their successes, or dismiss the contributions of their environment, those who’ve helped them or even luck. It’s my belief and experience that no one succeeds wholly on their own, particularly in the sphere of building a company or a professional career. Perhaps, if you’ve been raised by wolves, lived alone in the wilderness, created remarkable things and modern civilization has only just discovered you, it’s OK to answer “What a dumb question. I’m awesome,” when asked about how you’ve achieved so much. Otherwise, shut up and stop lying to yourself and everyone around you.

When I’ve encountered people with the “I’m awesome” attitude, my experience has been A) I never want to work with, for, or around them, B) they’re delusional and never as talented or remarkable as they believe themselves to be, and C) this eogism has cost them in the past and will cost them again in the future.

I wish that rather than advising women to forego humility in favor of the deadliest cardinal sin, she’d called this attitude to attention and excoriated it. Neither men nor women should take a page from this book. Owning your success is one thing, but  the traits Sheryl ascribes to women of underestimating your performance and citing the external factors that supported your achievements should be things where men are “taking a page.” Not the other way around.