What's different for women making big decisions? Cognitive psychologist Therese Huston offers this definitive playbook for making stronger, wiser choices that thoughtfully addresses how the cultural landscape—and the research—defines how women decide.
So, you’ve earned a seat at the table.
What happens next?
From confidence gaps to power poses, leaning in to calling bias out, bossypants to girl bosses, women have been hearing a lot of advice lately. Most of this aims at greater success, but very little focuses on a key set of skills that ensures such success — making the wisest, strongest decisions.
Every day, in every part of our lives, we face an increasing number of choices. Our futures depend not just on the results, but on how well we handle making these hard choices and the serious scrutiny that comes with them.
But is a woman’s experience issuing a tough call any different from a man’s?
Absolutely. From start to finish.
Men and women approach decisions differently, though not necessarily in the ways we have been led to believe. Stress? It actually makes women more focused. Confidence? A healthy dose of self-questioning leads to much stronger decisions. And despite popular misconceptions, women are just as decisive as men — though they may pay a price for it.
So why, then, does a real gap arise after the decision is made? Why are we quick to question a woman’s decisions but inclined to accept a man’s? And why is a man’s reputation as a smart decision-maker cemented after one big call, but a woman is expected to prove herself again and again?
How Women Decide delivers lively, engaging stories of real women and their experiences, as well as expert, accessible analysis of what the science has to say. Cognitive psychologist Therese Huston breaks open the myths and opens up the conversation about how we can best shape our habits, perceptions, and strategies, not just to make the most of our own opportunities, but to reshape the culture and bring out the best decisions — regardless of who’s making them.
What Happens When a Woman Makes the Call?
From every direction lately, women are hearing a call to arms. Women have been told to lean in, ask for what they want, know their value, play big, don their bossypants, and close the confidence gap. These messages galvanize. They embolden women to take their proper seats at the table and they promise power to those who want it. If women work hard and raise their expectations, they’re told, they will achieve the highest levels of success -- and that means they will be making more of the big decisions.
But no one has talked about what happens to women when they make these big decisions. Is a woman’s experience issuing a tough call, a decision with serious stakes, any different from a man’s? That’s the question that ignited my research and eventually caught fire as this book. I’ve found that when a man faces a hard decision, he only has to think about making a judgment, but when a woman faces a hard decision, she has to think about making a judgment and also navigate being judged.
What’s a smart, self-respecting, and (let’s face it) busy woman to do?
She needs to know how women decide and how to take the realities of the decision-making landscape into account when planning her own course of action. I’ll share a secret with you: Women approach decisions in ways that are actually stronger than they realize. Men and women approach decisions differently, but not necessarily in the ways people have been led to believe. This isn’t a “biology is destiny” or a pink brain / blue brain book. Society has been underestimating women’s abilities to make astute choices for years, and this doubting, this routine questioning of a woman’s judgment, drives many of the gender differences we see.
Often we don’t realize that we’re scrutinizing a woman’s decision more than we would a man’s; it can be hard to notice because there are very few scenarios where all factors other than gender are identical. Sometimes, though, a situation arises where we can see a clear parallel and a clear bias. Take, for example, the moment in February 2013 when Marissa Mayer made headlines for changing Yahoo’s work-from-home policy. Yahoo announced that employees could no longer telecommute full-time, and the press lambasted Mayer. Pundits criticized the policy change, saying it would hurt women, and many of us, myself included, raised eyebrows about Mayer’s controversial decision. But how many people heard about it when Best Buy’s CEO, Hubert Joly, made the same decision about a week later? When he ended Best Buy’s generous work-from-home policy, business reporters dutifully picked up the story, but his announcement didn’t cause a public outcry the way Mayer’s did. Joly popped up in headlines for his decision briefly in 2013, but as late as 2015, journalists were still talking about Mayer’s decision, analyzing whether she made the right choice. So for making the same judgment call, a male CEO drew some sidelong glances for a few months, but a female CEO drew extensive scrutiny and censure for years.
At first, we tend to rationalize our reactions. Yahoo’s decision must have impinged on more employees’ schedules because it’s a software company, and programmers can work in their pajamas at home at any hour of the day or night; Best Buy has stores, we reason, and employees need to appear fully clothed and on time. Their telecommuting pool must be tiny. But articles on the story indicated that Mayer’s decision affected only two hundred employees, whereas Joly’s decision reportedly changed the lives of nearly four thousand corporate employees who often worked from home. That’s twenty times more workers touched by the Best Buy decision.
If the number of affected employees doesn’t explain the outcry against Mayer and the complacency around Joly, what does? Had Mayer just taken the helm at Yahoo while Joly was a fixture at Best Buy? No. This is where the parallels become even more unsettling? -- both chiefs had been on the job roughly six months. One likely reason we keep fuming over Mayer’s decision but ignore Joly’s choice lies in a pattern that many of us unknowingly fall into: we’re quick to question a woman’s decision but inclined to accept a man’s. Men and women don’t have to act differently for us to see them differently.
This tendency has very real consequences. Consider the often-cited observation that businesses are eager to promote men but reluctant to promote women. Why? Your bookshelf may be full of answers to that question, but my research suggests a new one, one many people have overlooked. We trust men to make the hard choices. We are quick to accept a man’s decisions, even the hard, unpleasant ones, as being what must be done. When a woman announces the same difficult decision, we scrutinize it with twice the vigor. We may not mean to, but we doubt the quality of her choices.
It may be hard to believe that decision-making has a gender component, that someone would give a man a supportive pat on the back but give a woman a raised eyebrow for making the same call. We see ourselves as fair people with the best of intentions. I’ve never met a single person who said, “I love to discriminate.” If we want to understand how gender changes the decision-making process as well as the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we react to men’s and women’s choices, we need to ask some rigorous questions. Is there any real difference between men’s and women’s judgment? Might we ever exaggerate the gap? Where has popular culture exposed real disparities in the ways men and women decide, and where has popular culture actually manufactured the differences? In cases where women and men do take different approaches to the same choice, is the way women reach a decision ever an asset rather than a liability?
Most important, if we do find that there are differences in how men’s and women’s decisions are received, what can we do about it? How do we become more aware of our favoritism and catch ourselves in the act? Partly, we need to educate ourselves about our hidden biases around decision-making. Both men and women must take stock and strategize, because no one person can do this alone. Certainly, reading this book can and should help improve the decisions you make regardless of your gender, but if we want to see more women take meaningful seats at the table, we ought to change how we, as a culture, talk about women’s judgment. We need to make some structural changes, and these changes will improve not just the lives of women but the decisions being made for our world. If you gain only one insight from this book, I hope it’s this: Having a greater number of women in the room when a crucial decision is being made is not only better for women, it’s better for the decision. And that’s better for everyone.
“Using a wealth of economic and social science research, Huston – a cognitive psychologist [...] – documents these stereotypes and shows how women are often trapped in situations where they can’t come out ahead, no matter what they do.…[How Women Decide] will resonate with any women trying to navigate treacherous career waters as well as with managers wondering how to increase diversity and get the best out of all their employees. One could also imagine it becoming required reading on Wall Street, where male-dominated thinking has caused so many problems.”
—New York Times Book Review
"Huston, writing in a cheerful, classroom voice, wants to give readers tools to take apart the frequently hostile response to women’s decisions...In clear, declarative prose, [How Women Decide] dips readers’ toes into stereotype threat and confirmation bias, role congruity theory, cortisol and stress studies and prospect theory."
“To decide or not to decide? All leaders face that question, but Therese Huston shows us convincingly and compellingly that women’s decisions are viewed and judged differently than men’s. I thought I had read everything I needed to read on gender differences, but, as a CEO, this book showed me a new and critically important area in which we need to be very aware of our biases and take the steps Huston recommends to address them.”
—Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family and President and CEO of New America
"With verve, charm, and a ruthless reliance on data, [Huston] challenge[s] and ultimately disprove[s] several common assumptions about how women make decisions... Huston provides sharp observations, handy chapter summaries, and practical advice… She builds a convincing case that if businesses, government, and other organizations want to improve their decision-making at the highest levels, they need to have more women in the boardroom; and she provides women readers with concrete strategies to defuse existing stereotypes."
"Extraordinarily readable—and a profound supplement to Sandberg's Lean In."
“Insightful advice for women about decisiveness, confidence, and tackling gender bias...Useful, practical strategies based on informed analysis.”
“How Women Decide blows up several myths about female decision-making that everyone believes, women included. Through thoughtful analysis and lively, entertaining anecdotes, it teaches us what's really happening—how bias works. Every woman needs to read this well-researched and wonderfully reported book. She'll gain confidence through useful tactics for even better decision-making. Men should read it, too; they'll learn tactics that make women great leaders!”
—Joanna Barsh, bestselling author of How Remarkable Women Lead and Centered Leadership
“Ever wonder whether ‘women's instinct’ is a real thing? Ever consider multiple points of view, only to be called ‘wishy-washy’? In this brilliantly researched and entertaining book, Therese Huston reveals the ways in which understanding ourselves and thinking critically about gender biases can help us all make better choices. I'm already using it to strategize at work, and I predict that every reader will learn something new and useful in its pages.”
—Jessica Bacal, editor of Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect on What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong and Director of the Wurtele Center for Work & Life at Smith College
“Finally! A well-researched book that affirms the fact that, despite their self-doubts, women make great decision-makers. This book will help you to compete with your male counterparts with courage and confidence.”
—Lois P. Frankel, Ph.D., author of Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office and See Jane Lead
“How do women make decisions? In this thoughtful, well-researched book, Huston avoids pop-psych answers that assume all women are the same. Exploding stereotypes, but showing their effect on women’s behavior, she offers intelligent guidance to the challenges and process of making decisions.”
—Carol Tavris, Ph.D., coauthor of Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)
“None of the myriad decision-making bestsellers considers how their advice should differ for men and women. How Women Decide overthrows such one-sex-fits-all recommendations. It combines engaging stories and compelling research to reveal how our beliefs about men and women drive the way they make choices."
—Daniel Simons, Ph.D, coauthor of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us
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