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Written by Ginger Clayton, President & CEO of Elontec

Is imposter syndrome a real thing? Evidence consistently shows women can make better workers and better leaders yet are often ranked lower, even by themselves, when compared to men.

Imposter syndrome is a topic that’s been resonating with me the last few weeks, especially after visiting one of our partners for a tour of their manufacturing facility with the design team of my company. We walked the floor of a chair maker, and the commitment to a smarter, faster, better way of doing things was consistently evident. There were KPIs posted everywhere. Our host talked about how they are constantly trying new methods and comparing. Technology abounds – lasers to cut and measure, sensors to control pace and flow, and computers that regulate and calibrate. This company is constantly pushing the envelope to improve. Yet, the true stable variable at each of the manufacturing stages was an artisan, a hand laborer, finishes the phase of work – usually with a mallet, a knife, or a needle and thread. It was telling that even a high-tech process still relies so much on the human touch and pride of work. It’s obvious that, no matter how automated things get, a finishing touch by someone who cares always punctuates a quality product.

As we walked the floor, we followed the process of the product life cycle, starting with where they measured and cut the textiles and followed along until we got to where all the parts were assembled. This company sends out most of their chairs fully assembled, and as we watched this phase, someone on my team noticed two restroom doors behind us. One, like usual, had a small “Women” sign on it. The other had a piece of paper with a “WO” taped in front of the “Men.” We chuckled a bit and then turned our attention back toward this final phase… yup, all women. There was not a single man amongst all the assembly stations. I asked our host, “Do you particularly hire women for this role?” He smiled and replied, “Not really by choice; it’s just men don’t really last in this job”. We had one guy who survived a couple of months, but generally speaking, the women just do it better.”

It’s important to note that the role is easily the most technical and challenging of all those on the manufacturing floor. It’s also worth stating that these are the highest-paying positions on the floor, accordingly. These chairs are complicated. Each of the women had a wall of tiny screws, nuts, and bolts beside them. They had piles of paper diagrams to the side and a couple of large monitors showing detailed assembly instructions. “We sell about 200 different chairs,” the host said, “and  each of them goes together a little differently. It’s a lot to pay attention to…” That’s when I noticed something probably the most striking: most of the women didn’t refer to the paper diagrams or monitors at all… they were working from memory. I asked about this, and he said, “Yes, we’ve realized that they learn pretty quickly and usually stay around in this job. Our turnover is pretty low. Well, except for the men…” In business, we talk a lot about finding metrics and evidence, and in this situation, it’s certainly evident that in the most demanding job in the process, women succeed.

I came home thinking a lot about these women and what helps them be more successful in this role than their gender-based counterparts. There are tons of research papers and leadership journals that, almost always, point back to a handful of qualities and behaviors that help women be successful:

  1. Women are more inclusive;
  2. Women are more empathetic;
  3. Women are good at multi-tasking;
  4. Women are motivated by challenges;
  5. Women are free-thinking; and
  6. Women can wear many hats.

We can all agree that gender shouldn’t limit nor define an individual’s work or leadership abilities. In a perfect world, we would be evaluated on our own potential and skills with no regard to whether we are women or men. Yet, often, we still live in a system where women are not usually as encouraged to assume technical, high-paying, or leadership roles as much as their male counterparts. A recent number was that only 23 organizations in the Global 500 list had a woman leader – that’s less than 5%. Another study shows that for every 100 men promoted to managerial roles, only about 85 women follow suit. With fewer women in the leadership pool, there is already an unbalanced disadvantage for promotion to higher levels of leadership. By the time you flow up to C-suite positions, the limitations are obvious. Think about how counter-intuitive this is? It’s clear that women can perform as well or better, yet they are significantly rationed at even getting the opportunities to prove it. This refocuses my thinking back to those women at those assembly stations – the company didn’t aim to hire men or women. There wasn’t a general bias that throttled opportunities to that role. Without that glass ceiling placed above them, women consistently have shown that they can do it better and are thriving.

So why doesn’t that same thing happen at leadership levels? A report on what makes a good leader identifies characteristics like honesty, intelligence, compassion, and innovation rank very high on the rating scale. If you focus on traits like these, women consistently score higher in most of these categories. It would subsequently make sense that women are able to succeed in leadership roles, right? Well, studies also show that women tend to consistently rank themselves lower when it comes to assessing themselves-imposter syndrome. Whether you’re on team “It’s a Real Thing” or team “Stop Talking About It,” the one thing that cannot be denied is that women often remove themselves from consideration of leadership roles long before anyone has to do it. This is really disheartening when we can clearly prove that women are generally stronger in most of the qualities that would make them excellent leaders if the glass ceiling, self-imposed or not, wouldn’t be limiting their potential.

This really resonates in a service-oriented industry like the one my company resides in. Our key differentiators are focused on customer experience, and our team values behaviors such as empathy and inclusion. Connecting with our clients is, simply, what makes us better and we aren’t a unicorn. Businesses thrive when they excel at customer service. It supersedes almost everything. Think about it. You’re likely more than willing to pay a little more for the food at that one restaurant where they know your name and you’re treated like royalty. You go back to that same grocery store with the friendly and smiling checkout clerk. You get your car fixed by the same shop that answers your phone call with your name and asks how your family is. Customer service is key, and I firmly believe that most service-oriented businesses need a strong focus on HOW they do things just as much as they need to focus on WHAT they do. This means taking a deep dive into all the qualities that we discussed above and being open-minded to the fact, as our host relayed, sometimes women (say it with me) “just do it better”.

 

 

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