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Confidence is a Numbers Game

When Ginny Rommety became IBM's new chief executive last fall, she spoke about a point early in her career when she was offered a promotion that she initially rejected, for fear that she was under-qualified. Her husband asked her: "Do you think a man would have ever done that?" She learned an important lesson then and there — to be self-confident on the outside even when she felt self-critical on the inside.

If the first female CEO of Big Blue thinks she's under-qualified, one wonders how the rest of women are stacking up on the self-confidence and self-promotion scales? There has been a lot of discussion recently about women's tendency to think of themselves — and promote themselves — less assertively than men. These calls to action are inspirational, but maybe there's another way for women to think about this issue--a way that's less about inspiration, and more about cold, hard math.

Here's where I think women get it wrong: we are perpetually rounding down, where, by all rules of mathematics, we should be rounding up. And that slight miscalculation has huge repercussions in our professional lives.

In school, if you graduate with a 3.76 grade point average, you round up and call it a 3.8. In politics, when the polls tell you candidate A is leading the pack at 28%, you can sure bet the numbers didn't shake out to a perfect integer. And when economists talk about our federal deficit, they're rounding up (or down) to the nearest gazillion.

This isn't fudging the numbers, or being deceitful; it's an accepted mathematical tool that says that when the amount by which you round is small in comparison to the magnitude of the quantity you are measuring, it's just as well to go with a, well, "round" number.

But that small difference can still have a dramatic effect. Take Vegas, where the casinos have built a hugely profitable business model on seemingly tiny odds. The house advantage in blackjack is a mere 0.17% on a single-deck game (The advantage goes up from there--potentially as high as 0.66% for multiple decks). But that 0.17% edge is all the house needs to make heaps of money over the long term. For women, a seemingly small delta could be equally powerful.

And yet, women aren't using this mathematical convenience correctly, or to their benefit. Instead, we inevitably place outsized value on the downside of our calculations, on the outstanding risks, on the unknown. Similar to Rommety thinking she wasn't qualified for the job, women round down: if we're 60% qualified for a job, we give ourselves a 0 and don't apply. Why round down rather than up when we've long been taught that a 0.5 gets rounded up to 1? And even when we feel 70%, 80% or 90% qualified for a job, we'd never be so bold as to round ourselves up to 100%. We look at that margin of error and assume the worst, not the best. But rational math actually tells us that we should be rounding up in that scenario.

A female CEO of a commodities trading firm once told me about her internal hiring challenges. She said that every time she posted a job opening requiring eight qualifications for a candidate, she would have a trove of men banging down her door demanding the job or promotion. They would invariably tell her they were the absolute right person for the job while actually only having four, maybe five of the qualifications listed. She'd then notice that no senior women approached her about the job. So she would reach out instead, and time and time again, the women would respond, "I wanted to apply, but I only have six of the qualifications, so I'm not the right person." The men rounded up, often lobbying for the job when they had a mere 50% of the stated qualifications (not even 51%!) while the women with 75% of the skills needed, took themselves out of the running. The men, masters of rounding up, had given themselves a chance, while the women, more qualified than any of them, had simply bowed out.

What a revolution we could unleash if women simply started using principles of mathematics to round correctly — and to prove to ourselves that our ideas are brilliant, our contributions worthwhile, our monetary value equal to that of our male counterparts! This small but cold, hard, rational tweak in our thinking could have a major impact on our outcomes: higher salaries, better jobs, and a real, true strength we've been afraid to admit is ours.

by Umair Haque
Leadership Development
Leadership Development
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