Are Expectations Too High for Women Execs?

High expectations are supposed to psychologically be a good thing. I’ve heard that students in school whom the teacher expects great things from tend to perform far better than those from whom the teacher expects very little. Could the same be true of women executives? Or do unrealistically (and unfairly) high expectations for women executives spell an unavoidably disappointing performance?

A new report by American Management Association reveals that women CEOs are held to higher standards than their male counterparts:

“AMA examined the backgrounds and experience of Fortune 500 CEOs, of which 4.8 percent are women, an all-time high. Female chief executives were found to have earned more rigorous academic degrees, have greater work and life experience when first appointed, and proved more often to have worked their way up internally.

Thirty-six percent of female Fortune 500 CEOs vs. 28 percent of male CEOs hold undergraduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Moreover, their average undergraduate school ranking is 163.5 as opposed to 167.2 for male Fortune 500 CEOs, based on 2014 Forbes rankings. And women CEOs’ average graduate school ranking is 18.1 vs. 20.7 for male CEOs, based on 2014 U.S. News & World Report rankings.

In terms of work and life experience, the average age for women at appointment is 52.8 years vs. 50.2 for men. It also was discovered that only 20 percent of female vs. 26 percent of male CEOs were recruited from outside.”

Why should women be expected to be more qualified than men just to have the job in the first place, and then, if expectations for them are higher just to get the job, how much higher are the standards for them once on the job?

It’s historically been so much harder for women to excel in nearly every field, so those who have become well known over the years are more likely to be high achievers with fewer embarrassing spots on their record than their male peers. Consider the political realm. How many humiliating scandals have plagued male politicians? How many similar scandals can you attribute to women politicians in recent years? Ask yourself the same question about any field, and, if your assessment is honest, the answer will be the same: The women who make it to the top of nearly any field are usually higher, more flawless performers than their male colleagues. They had to be, given the steeper challenges facing them.

In addition to the need to make it over the hurdle of often subtle prejudice, women have been noted to suffer more than men from the need to be “perfect.” For instance, much has been said about the way a cranky woman boss is characterized versus what a similarly irritable male boss could get away with. The woman quickly would be called the name for a female dog, whereas the male boss often wouldn’t be criticized behind his back at all. He’d just be called hard-hitting or demanding, maybe, or may even be praised as an “achiever.” Savvy women in high-level jobs probably are well aware of this disparity in perception and have learned to carefully calibrate every word that leaves their mouth when in the workplace.

Given the existing challenges facing women in corporate environments, how can trainers and Human Resources executives create development and mentoring programs that allow women to be as relaxed in their dialogues with colleagues as men, and as free to make mistakes and be forgiven as the men they work with? I wonder if part of the solution is teaching women that, despite perceptions to the contrary, they are expected to be no more “perfect” than their male colleagues (that it’s OK to be cranky and irritable sometimes), and that when questions of promotions come up, they shouldn’t be timid about putting themselves forward—even if they’re not 100 percent sure their qualifications are strong enough. After all, these women should be guided: “Think about the example of many of the men you’ve worked with over the years. How many, in truth, mediocre performers, have had no compunction about pushing themselves forward for big promotions—and, shockingly, how many have actually gotten those jobs?” Most women who have been in the work world longer than a few years probably can think of many men they work with who went after—and got—positions that their past performance wouldn’t have made them obvious choices for.

Along with training programs that teach corporate hiring managers that discrimination—even in the subtle form of uneven expectations—is wrong, development and mentoring programs should let women themselves know they don’t have to be any more perfect than the men they work with—and that they shouldn’t hesitate to push for “stretch” positions. If you’re Jane Doe and looking over the internal job listings at your company, or elsewhere, and wonder if you should apply to a much higher-level position than your current role, just ask yourself what John Doe would do. Chances are he wouldn’t hesitate to immediately send off a resume and letter letting the hiring manager know how brilliant he is.

How do you ensure women job candidates and employees are held to the same standards as men candidates and employees, and how can you teach women to not hold themselves to detrimentally exacting standards?