Talented Women: Beware the “Tiara Syndrome”

By Kellie A. McElhaney

Are talented women holding themselves back by focusing too much on being perfect students, perfect team players, or impeccably-qualified job candidates? Do too many women modestly wait for someone else to crown them?

It’s an uncomfortable question, especially to those of us who have pushed for years to reduce the external obstacles that hinder women from reaching their full potential as leaders.

But if there is a “glass ceiling,’’ and I think there is, we have to grapple with all of the possible barriers. That was a key message for some 135 Haas students last fall, when Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook warned young women against the “tiara syndrome.”

The “tiara syndrome,” Sandberg contends, may help explain why the very reasons that girls that often do better than boys in school can also become an Achilles’ heel for women in the business world.

Sandberg had invited the Haas students to Facebook headquarters for the launch of a new initiative by LeanIn.org to narrow the gender gap in leadership. Sandberg’s goal is to work further down the “pipeline” – when women are still in college or graduate school. She wants to spur LeanIn circles on campuses around the world, so that women — and men — can share experiences about what it takes to get ahead.LeanIn Photo_20131028

At first, I wasn’t sure we could even sign up 100 students to make the trek to Facebook headquarters. As it turned out, we filled all our slots in 20 minutes and quickly had a waiting list of 59 additional people – men as well as women!

Women, Sandberg contends, often think they can be crowned with the tiara of success by keeping their heads down, working hard, over-preparing, and acing all of the exams. Hard work, diligence and modesty are all great virtues. But without any leavening, those virtues can also prompt people to be too self-effacing and conflict-averse.

We women are less likely than men to speak up in classrooms or business meetings, preferring to wait and be called before we offer our ideas and solutions. We don’t like to self-promote, often preferring to be graded on our performance afterward by a professor or a boss. We often believe we have to be 100% qualified for a dream job after college, and that we can’t apply unless we received straight A’s.

A man, by contrast, is more likely to apply even if he has only half of the ideal qualifications. When women are offered a job, Sandberg continued, they are less likely than men to negotiate for a higher salary. When women do try to bargain, many still demand less money than men.

Let’s be clear: women often face real external barriers to their advancement. But I think Sandberg is onto a real issue, one that I often sense in my own graduate students at Haas. In my own experience, and in my research, women have been more likely than men to be the team-builders and taskmasters on joint projects, rather than the lead presenters. In a nutshell, women are less likely to seek the glory roles.

Studies also point to a self-perception gap in women, that women often perceive their talents and skills as less formidable than they are. Women are also more likely to view an organization as fixed in place with an unchanging set of rules. Men, sometimes to their detriment, are more likely to assume that things can be changed.

When men challenge the status quo, they tend to win praise for being bold and visionary. When women challenge the status quo, they are likely to be described as difficult and unlikable.

Sandberg seems to have struck a nerve with women globally, but also with women at Haas. Our students were incredibly engaged, asking 90 percent of the questions during Q&A, and they were by far the most vocal and insightful of all the campus groups who participated in the event that day.

My own takeaway is that women have to define for themselves what they want — and then stick up for it. We have constant arguments about whether women can “have it all.” But the proverbial “all’’ is being defined by others in society, not by the women themselves. If women define their own “all,” it’s much more likely to be one that fits.

At Haas, we have the opportunity for much more work in this space, and our Institute is solidly committed to it.

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