Men and women believe that women don't make good decisions or don't take risks. Seattle University professor Therese Huston counters these myths with fact.

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I once overheard a manager announcing that he had appointed a man to lead an important project because “men don’t dillydally in their decisions.”

I was initially outraged. But after I calmed down, I realized that many people of both genders subscribe to this belief. Indeed, women are criticized for being too indecisive, trying too hard to build consensus or letting emotions cloud their judgment. A cursory look at who’s running the top companies — 95.6 percent of S&P 500 CEOs are male — reinforces our negative perception about women as decision-makers.

But this commonly-held opinion is actually a myth. That’s according to a new book, “How Women Decide,” by Seattle University cognitive scientist Therese Huston. Huston uses studies, statistics and interviews to highlight that women are, in fact, just as competent in making decisions as men.

Furthermore, it’s not that women are particularly indecisive — research shows men actually struggle with making decisions as often as women. But negative stereotypes about their decision-making abilities make women more anxious about making important ones. Couple this with the narrow tightrope women often walk: We’re expected to be collaborative and share credit, yet when we do, we’re penalized for being too dependent on others’ opinions.

Here’s how this plays out in the workforce: the all-too-familiar meeting where a man gets the credit for a woman’s idea, or is applauded for the successful woman-led project. Huston calls this the dogsled phenomenon, where in professional settings women are welcome to make decisions behind the scenes, but when it comes to “race day,” it’s the men who get the credit for a well-executed decision.

Another stereotype also adds to this. “There’s a bias towards men as risk-takers,” Huston tells me. “That’s why men are often handed the reins.” Women are expected to play it safe, a disadvantage in a culture that rewards risk. Once again, her research disproves this myth — professionals of both genders take risks when they’re in a familiar situation. And while men tend to take more financial risks, women take more social risks. For example, women are more willing to speak up in a meeting to say “that’s a bad idea” or more likely to make career switch. But once again, we’re held back by misperceptions.

The Seattle Times Jobs columnist Ruchika Tulshyan. (Courtesy of Jama Abdirahman)
The Seattle Times Jobs columnist Ruchika Tulshyan. (Courtesy of Jama Abdirahman)

How can women be taken more seriously as decision-makers? First, ignore counsel to “just be more confident and take risks,” Huston says. “Men get to fail early and often, whereas women are penalized for the same thing.” Instead, when approaching performance reviews and other advancement opportunities, women must identify and proactively highlight instances in the past where they’ve taken successful risks.

She also urges managers to understand these gender biases, especially managers who dictate who gets to make important decisions. Men and women make different choices in different situations, but the best decisions are made when everyone has a seat at the table.

As Huston’s research finds, prioritizing gender equity is a decision and risk more businesses need to take.

Ruchika Tulshyan is a journalist, speaker and author. Connect with her on Twitter at @rtulshyan or her website rtulshyan.com.