Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Tie the Shoelace You're Tripping On


It hit me during a meeting with the CFO of one of Finland's most respected financial institutions.  The clock struck one and we'd already been deep in conversation for two hours.  A young lady about my age came in to take sandwich orders, which she promptly went to pick up from a nearby cafe.  As she served me delicious smoked salmon on rye, I realized how easily I could have been in her shoes - serving sandwiches in important meetings, instead of in mine - eating a sandwich in an important meeting (but more importantly, adding value to this important meeting). 

I have, in the not so distant past, been doing exactly that young woman's job - catering sandwiches to business people. It can be great fun.  There's nothing wrong with a service position; what was wrong with my situation is the reason I was doing it.  I'm not passionate about serving sandwiches.  Though I can appreciate a good meal, I'm not really even passionate about culinary art.  The reason I was catering is because I hadn't been charging enough for the work I am passionate about, and the bills needed to get paid somehow. 

Your mere ability to do a job well does not imply that it's the job you should be doing.


A conversation with a brilliant and very talented [male] friend of mine a few weeks ago convinced me that I wasn't alone and encouraged me to start a conversation about young women and work appraisal.  This friend's sister (whom I imagine has to be as equally brilliant and talented as her brother) is a freelance graphic designer who has a difficult time with her invoicing.  By which I mean she simply doesn't do invoicing.  Her brother tells me that he's been bugging her for years to raise her prices, but there is something real behind her mental roadblock.  So he has gone as far as engaging his company in projects for which he knows he will need the specific skills of his sister, hiring her to do the work, assigning a price to her services (much higher than she would ever suggest), invoicing himself, and transferring the money to her bank account.  Now that is brotherly love.  

But we don't all have such a brother to employ us.  (Okay, well, I happen to have four entrepreneurial brothers. But that's beside the point.)


What is behind young women's apprehension to request fair compensation?  Why do we have skewed perceptions of what's "fair" when it comes to the value of our work?

I was once talked down to charging one third of my list price for marketing material development.  Why did I even consider entertaining that conversation?  Because it would be an ongoing contract and I didn't want to lose the opportunity for a steady revenue stream.  It wasn't long before I discovered, however, that in the time I spent earning 1,000 € from that contract, I could have found, solicited, and struck deals with two or three new customers (at my list price) and still earned twice as much in the same amount of time.

Discounting my work has never, ever led to a better contract.


In my experience and conversations, young women systematically undervalue their work.  Whereas I know young men who've walked confidently into a job interview with only a vague recollection of the job title, it seems like a young woman will ensure that she has mastered every single function in the job description before even applying.  When it comes to performance expectations, young women seem less likely to take risk.  And we are much more price sensitive, ready to offer a discount for anything short of perfection.

I'm not the only one who's been thinking of this. 

Michelle Haynes and Madeline Heilman at the University of Massachusetts conducted a study and found that,  "Essentially, there is no such thing as innate low self-worth among women -- just the opposite. The problem is that self-perception is highly situation dependent and reliant on exterior factors outside of a person's control."  Though we might have great self-confidence and feel that we are capable of doing anything, the situation in which we compare our work to others and assign a value to it based on that comparison can throw us off.

Part of the issue is feeling that we have to justify our work requirements (salary, etc.), and this is something women find difficult to do.  Haynes and Heilman bring up a 1996 study which "showed that women who described their achievements in a self-promoting manner were considered undeserving, while the same behaviour in men illicited no such response."  Perhaps you've received negative feedback after speaking up when you felt you needed to justify your request with a description of your accomplishments.

Being the well-accomplished woman that she is, I appreciate Haynes' honesty in describing a personal example of the phenomena she studies.  She tells Wired"As I was reading this extraordinary review [for a conference submission], I thought: 'Wow! Those other co-contributors must have really written something amazing for us to have gotten this kind of feedback.' And then it hit me like a tonne of bricks: I do this too."  'This' being a self-deprecating, others-focused perception of contribution toward success. 

Then Stanford gets in on the conversation, suggesting "Everyone knows that on average women earn less than men for the same work."  They quantified how much we undervalue our work, citing a study in which women paid themselves 18 percent less than men paid themselves for the same work. To make it more unsettling... 'An independent panel judged the quality of the work to be equal and indistinguishable on the basis of gender. Furthermore, the women were some of America’s most elite students: Yale University undergraduates. "Women think they are worth less," concludes Jost [the lead researcher], who was disturbed at the strength of the result.'

Everyone knows that on average women earn less than men for the same work.


If you don't value your own work, others won't either.  Customers who bargain you down to dirt-cheap prices will never refer you to customers who are willing to pay more than their discount-hungry friends. 

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg agrees.  She warns women that if we don't own our accomplishments, we will be left behind while men are promoted in our place.  If you're self-employed, "owning your accomplishments" means boldly setting a price you'd like to earn.  I recommend her TedTalk.  You might also like one journalist's advice on stepping up your game. 


So go out and enterprise.  Step up for the big job interview.  Seek the advice of senior value creators and mentors who can give you proper perspective on the value of your work.  Then set some prices and fight to stick to them.  Step into your shoes as founder or freelancer, and don't forget to tie your shoelaces.  Otherwise you will be tripping yourself up for aeons to come.  This is your career. You're in it for the long haul, right?  I don't know any marathon runner who leaves his laces untied at the starting line.

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