What would you do if you were not afraid?

Article written for Visionen 2014/4.


For me, one of the few possible answers to the question from the title would be: if I were not afraid, I would write this article.

My motivation for writing is three-fold. First—and most obvious—the theme of the Visionen edition I am writing for is “fear.” Second, I recently started to meet young women, mostly ETH Zürich students, and  the topic of fear and how it relates to achieving our goals kept resurfacing. Third, through the magic of social networks I have recently stumbled upon a Tumblr blog that features notes from women answering the very question from the title. In fact, both my title and the blog were inspired by a question asked in the commencement speech to the graduates of Barnard College; the speech itself was held by one of the most powerful women in IT, Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook.

In the Tumblr blog, you will find notes from women of all ages, all levels of education, and different levels of fear and commitment. For example, a young girl proclaims she would talk to the boys at her hockey team if she were not afraid. Contrast this to the first female mayor of Pleasant Hill, which is a suburb of the capital of Iowa, Des Moines; she announced on this blog that she would run for mayor if she were not afraid—good thing she overcame her fear, as she was elected mayor.

In fact, it is because of the “fearful” reactions I hear from brilliant young women around me, that I thought the current Visionen theme would give me a perfect cover for writing about a topic that started to occupy my thoughts more: personal challenges of ambitious women in (setting and) reaching their goals.

I became intensely interested in this topic after reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean in (for a brief summary of the book, I encourage you to watch Sheryl Sandberg’s TED talk). In the book, the author encourages women to pursue their goals and gives practical advice for overcoming the various obstacles that might hold them back. Perhaps controversially, she argues that it is mostly the internal obstacles that hold women back: they do not have the self-confidence and drive that men do. For example, women are less likely to negotiate for their salary; they are held back by their desire to be liked; they generally take on a larger share of the housework; and they are more likely to abandon their career after having a child.

Indeed, the statistics are not encouraging for ambitious women: the discrepancy between men and women in the leading positions has been well documented. For example, out of the 197 self-governing countries in the world, 22 (11.2%) have women heads of state or government in the form of a president or a prime minister (source: report of the Institute for Women’s Leadership, Rutgers University). This percentage roughly corresponds to the numbers at our own Department of Computer Science at ETH Zürich: according to the department website, out of a total of 32 professors, we have three female professors (9.3%).

The gender distribution in leading positions seems to, at least partially, be explained with the difference in perception of women (and men) at leading positions: gender-linked stereotypes make it costly for a woman to exert assertive behavior. For example, female negotiators are expected to ask for more compensation when negotiating on behalf of someone, as opposed to when negotiating for themselves; there is no such effect for male negotiators (source). Consequently, to moderate the social backlash, women might “fear” being assertive when they negotiate for their own salary, promotion, or other benefits.

An even more blatant—and for me more interesting and indicative—example of gender stereotyping was exposed in a case study for Harvard Business School students. In this study, two groups of students examined the same career path of a successful entrepreneur and venture capitalist, with one difference: for one of the groups, the real name Heidi (Roisen) was changed to the invented name Howard. Not surprisingly, both groups judged both career paths as equally successful; what was different was their perception of the person behind the career path: Howard was generally more liked than Heidi.

To fight such social “norms”, I am sure not one solution will suffice. At ETH, a number of small associations focus on helping to empower women, to progress in their career, and to improve the gender balance. For example, the Forum for Women in Computer Science; the Society for Women in Natural Sciences, WiNS; Equal!; and Fix the Leaky Pipeline. Among my own peers, we started a Lean in circle, inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s book (https://circles.leanin.org).

But the gender-balanced workforce is not only for the women’s benefit; entire organizations could also profit. For example, a recent Gallup poll showed a correlation between gender diversity among employees and improved financial performance of a company. In turn, many organizations have programs to actively involve women in all levels of the organization’s structure. Indeed, in a recent interview with ETH’s Minh Tran, Google’s Security and Privacy Engineering Lead Cyrill Osterwalder reiterated his company’s commitment to providing equal opportunities for their employees of both genders.

Finally, because mostly male eyes will read this, I feel compelled to write a short disclaimer. I get different reactions when discussing this issue with men. Some are dismissive, e.g., saying it is not true that girls are at a disadvantage (for them, all I can do is show the numbers and studies like the ones outlined above), or saying that a less competent girl should not get a job just because she is a girl (suggesting they were not paying attention, as this is not what neither I nor Sheryl Sandberg are advocating), or objecting to the very notion of generalizing (i.e., stereotyping) issues into “male” and “female” ones, or suggesting that women do not want to be at the top of their professions. Some were previously not aware of the problem, but are willing to consider the statistics and the research, asking how they can be a part of the solution, and for these I am thankful.

Indeed, when I first started thinking about this article, I was afraid [no pun intended] I would not find enough material to present the case on the importance of addressing the gender-related issues. But what I found was that material was jumping at me from every corner of the Internet.

Lastly, I ask you: what would you do if you were not afraid?