Women, Sometimes Too Risk-Averse, Should Instead Focus on Possibility

Did you ever wonder why you didn't make bolder choices at each fork in the road along your career path?

Surely we all do as women watching men get (or perhaps take?) big steps forward and across new functions and roles, earning the differential in title, compensation, and scope that we often find elusive and yet desirable.  

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This disparity has less to do with education, competencies, and experience than it does with how women think about risk and how men view risk. There are many structural hurdles, societal norms, the finite but considerable requirements of bearing and raising children, and the statistical probability that our career development is shaped by men above us. However, our own attitudes and approach to risk — how we approach it, our fears, and even perhaps our wiring — may provide worthy reflection.

While snorkeling in the Caribbean last year, I had an opportunity to reflect on risk. Although I am a certified scuba diver, I have had a deep rooted fear of the water after a near-drowning experience as a child. As we approached the bay where my family would snorkel, I expressed this hesitation quite clearly. And as soon as we approached the gleaming white sands, my husband and son donned their gear and took off. It was only my daughter, who stayed back to make sure I would be comfortable, and she guided me out into the open ocean. I have no rational cause for my fear. But it was real, and it would have prevented me from experiencing beautiful coral and swimming with the turtles.

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Having a buddy in view took all fear away. My frustration at the men in the family became an analogy for what we experience at work.  Men are not geared to look back or stay back. It is up to us as co-travelers to coax and guide others along in their paths. And it is up to us as individuals to define what will provide comfort.  

Think back on your career. Did you take the “riskier” assignments? Did you make your bosses aware that you would be absolutely willing and prepared to make bold steps and demonstrate success?

I realized that time and time again I had been given assignments across functions that I would not have anticipated being prepared for — brand leadership for a highly visible cancer drug launch, heading up licensing and business development for the U.S, for a large pharmaceutical company, transforming business across 75 countries, and building a new function around reimbursement and access.  And although I subsequently overdelivered in each of these roles,  I might have talked myself out of each of these roles.  

Does this sound familiar? That's highly likely.

See also: To Move the Needle on Gender Parity, Execs Must Admit Bias

So, rather than focusing on why an assignment may be “risky” why not instead scan the possibilities to build skills in a broader way — and then problem solve how to succeed in the role. Women over-analyze their personal toolkit, and they also over-analyze the reasons behind their fears.

Pivot forward instead — articulate your interests clearly and also articulate your expectations for the support you will want in a new role, whether that is your own buddy system or whatever else it may entail. Learn from the women who have gone before you, but realize that we are diverse in our approach too. Reflect on your own assumptions about risk, but don't dwell on the why. Zoom out your field of view much wider than ever before as adventures await. And believe that you have and can bring along the risk management tools that you need to become comfortable in any new role. Most importantly, don't wait for adventures to happen – just dive in.


Shabnam Kazmi is ‎VP of patient access and adherence at Otsuka America Pharmaceutical. She is a 2016 Hall of Femme honoree

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