Is Perfection the Enemy of the Girl?

Keynote Address of Commissioner Dawn D. Stump at the Women’s Energy Network 2019 Biennial National Conference, Denver, Colorado

Thank you to Cimarex, Jenny Fordham, and the Women’s Energy Network for the opportunity to be here today.  Let me start with the standard disclaimer that the views I express today are my own and not those of the Commission I am honored to serve upon.

I am delighted to be a part of your conference, and I personally find inspiration in your theme of “Perseverance: Be Energized, Be Bold, Be You”.  As a demographic, women have reached a crossroads in our quest to contribute to the many professions we represent and perseverance is how we got here and how we will continue to expand our impact.

More and more women are claiming leadership roles – in the board room, in the C–suite, in Congress, and in other decision making bodies.  For me, getting a seat at the table is less about being a woman and more about knowing that the unique way in which I contribute – because I am a woman – is a value–add.  Let me explain:  Like most women, my approach is somewhat different from that of my male colleagues – all of whom I have a tremendous respect for – but   alternative ways of considering any challenge broaden the options for solving problems.  Women and men must embrace each other’s contribution for better results.  Why is it so important?  A few years ago, the McKinsey Global Institute produced a study indicating that a setting in which women participate in the economy identically to men would add up to $28 trillion, or 26 percent, to annual global GDP in 2025 compared with a status quo scenario.  S&P Global more recently conducted a data derived assessment of why gender diversity lends to profitability and economic growth.  Specific to the American workforce their data suggest that increasing both entry and retention of women, particularly to those professions traditionally filled by men, could present a growth opportunity for the world’s principal economy and the potential to add five to ten percent to nominal GDP within a few decades.  I encourage all of you to read their report.

So now that we have more research to validate why this is important, how do we as women stay energized, bold, and true to ourselves, as the theme for your conference suggests?  I would suggest that women will increasingly find seats at the table but in order to capture that productive, diverse viewpoint to the benefit of any organization, women must not only sit at the table but find their voices at the table.

Today, I would like to devote a bit of time to exploring the challenge women face in expressing our contribution.  I am converting the old adage, “perfect is the enemy of the good” into a question, is perfection the enemy of the girl?  Women often resist offering our opinion until we can perfect the message.  This requires research, contemplation, and delivery planning – all very good strengths that women can leverage, but I caution that if applied to every engagement they will render us less effective.  Men are usually far more confident in sharing their knowledge and when you are the only woman in the discussion the conversation may progress without you if you are paralyzed by the need to be an expert rather than a contributor.  Why does this dynamic exist?  I submit that some level of caution is inherent and some is developed.  I have a daughter and at a young age she displayed characteristics of caution that are simply not presented in my son’s personality.  That said I also believe an element of our quest for perfection is due to a fear of failure that develops from experience.  When women fail we immediately examine the question “what did I do wrong?”  Men however are much more likely to consider the problem as circumstantial and having little to do with them.  The correct assessment probably lies somewhere in the middle.

Drilling down on how women have developed this fear of perceived failure I would like to offer what I call the theory of misunderstanding.  It is fact that men and women approach problems and offer solutions in very different ways – a fact that is now being recognized as a benefit per the recent data I mentioned earlier.  However, this benefit cannot fully materialize so long as these differing approaches result in men and women talking past each other because over time, women, often the minority represented in the discussion, may find it easier to pull back from the conversation altogether rather than face a recurring lack of reception for their ideas.  This is not acceptable – we worked to get a seat at the table and now we all have to work hard to find our voice and make the contribution worthwhile.  Both men and women share the responsibility of recognizing each other’s meaningful contributions but to get there we need a more balanced representation in the conversation.  More women sharing seats at the same table will lend to reducing the communication barriers prevalent between men and a minority representation of women.

It is unacceptable for women to pull back for fear of failure but perhaps even worse is adaptation that causes us to lose the benefit of diverse viewpoints altogether.  Sometimes the perceived path for success suggests women need to simply adopt the methods long applied by successful men.  However, if the data is correct and diversity is the key to better economic performance, we are not doing our part if we simply succumb to advancing the already proven methods long employed by a less diverse set of decision makers.  This is the “be you” component of your theme and it can be easily lost. I personally can attest that throughout both my professional career and even my childhood I have exhibited a tendency to prove I can do things in the same manner as the boys or men.  I have countless examples I could share as I grew up very close to my large extended family of predominately male cousins where we all worked together in the agricultural business, since that time I have spent much of my career working in and around industries with far fewer women than men, and even in my current position where I am the lone female on the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  I have often been tempted to adjust my own approach in order to more easily integrate in these environments, but to do so would completely miss the mark.

I grew up playing basketball and often the varsity girls’ basketball team would scrimmage the boys’ junior varsity team during practice.  I am somewhat competitive, and I very much wanted to beat the boys at their game.  Turns out they were physically bigger and stronger and after literally being slammed to the ground on a truly accidental foul, I realized we could only beat them at their game if we played to our strengths of strategy and collaboration – two areas I happen to believe women excel in no matter the forum – the basketball court or the board room.  The end result of this experience actually benefitted both the boys and the girls – we were more physically conditioned and they were more mentally prepared.  Don’t play the game the same way the boys do, make your unique impact and everyone will be better served.

So how do we overcome these tendencies of paralyzing perfectionism, withdrawal, and culturally prescribed adaptation such that we can truly deliver on our value add?  First – identify and distinguish your abilities; second – work smarter not harder; and third – claim credit.

Identifying general qualities that distinguish your approach from others does not mean bringing your famous chocolate chip cookies to every meeting or always agreeing to take the meeting notes because you happen to be an excellent writer.  What I am referring to here is entering every conversation armed with a self–knowledge of what you do best.  Is it strategy, teambuilding, marketing – where do you feel most confident?  You do not need to explain this to your male colleagues but simply knowing what you can best offer will allow you to more easily identify the opportunities for input without overthinking each and every engagement through the perfectionism lenses.

Work smarter, not harder – this one I learned the hard way.  There is simply no way around the fact that working parents, both men and women, have two full time jobs.  My second child was born during what was arguably the busiest time of my professional career – the financial crisis.  I am very fortunate that my spouse more than pulled his weight during this time but I also now know that my desire to prove myself capable of working long hours, nights and weekends was not always required but rather a bit habitual and rooted in a personal need to prove myself and ensure no display of weakness could ever be seen by others.  Retrospectively, this seems insane to me.  Certainly, you will be required to stay late and arrive early from time to time and I am not suggesting you reject this, but do not succumb to a culture of doing so for acceptance into an inefficient system that disregards the fact that women are typically quite good at multi–tasking.  Yes, you will still need to separate work and life much of the time – no texting at the family dinner table – but the notion that engaging in multiple life functions concurrently makes you less capable of performing at either task simply ignores one of our primary distinguishing qualities.  This not only applies to working moms, but any woman faced with competing personal and professional responsibilities – women are quite good at task management so long as we do not adapt to what we believe is expected rather than required to be effective.  Do not try to be an expert on every topic, do not feel compelled to contribute to every conversation simply for the sake of being heard unless you truly have something to say, hold efficient meetings, and if possible, politely excuse yourself from unproductive situations.  This requires saying “no” from time to time – another challenge for most women – but saying “no” to those things that are ineffective or simply not best suited to your skill set frees you to focus on the things you can truly influence.

So once we identify our distinguishing abilities and learn to work smarter, then comes the real challenge.  Claiming credit for our ideas and successes is well beyond our comfort zone.  Men are traditionally much better as this.  Marketing ourselves is often very awkward for women.  I offer no sophisticated solution for this one other than to say you must get out of your comfort zone.  Being able to perform is simply not enough.  Success requires ensuring that your performance is known – not necessarily celebrated, but known.  We as women tend to rely upon our network to advance our successes and commend our achievements because self–acknowledgement feels like bragging.  I am a huge advocate for a strong network but this cannot be the only means of recognition you employ.  Find a medium that makes you comfortable – pick up the phone and remind colleagues of your ideas, ask for a quarterly meeting with your boss to discuss achievements (this is not a goal–setting meeting), and employ social media but do not allow the number of “likes” or lack thereof to discourage you.  The exercise of claiming credit is simply uncomfortable but particularly unnatural to women.  This discomfort will likely not dissipate but we must constantly consider and remind ourselves of the threat that our ideas and contributions risk being lost if no one knows about them.

Bringing this back to the original need for more diverse leadership bodies – the fact that alternative ways of considering any challenge broaden the options for solving problems.  In my current capacity at the CFTC we have many issues to consider, and I am grateful that each of the five Commissioners offers a unique perspective which will ultimately improve our end results.  For example, we will soon consider a proposal to establish position limits in some of our commodity markets, including energy contracts – this has long perplexed the CFTC with several unsuccessful proposals over the years and a court challenge to a previously finalized rule.  We need each of the current Commissioners’ unique contribution to finally solve this challenge.  I do not expect that all of my male colleagues, as a demographic, will approach this challenge in the same way, nor will I.  It is the fact that each has a contribution to make that will ultimately yield the best results.

In closing, I simply want to say that all of the things I have suggested here today are difficult and my own personal application requires constant resetting.  The real solution requires both men and women to consider getting out of our norms.  As I have already mentioned, I have a daughter and I want the benefit of female contribution to be a given, not a statistic, by the time she enters the workforce, but I also have a son, who is here with me today because I want him to know that his ideas are not only worthwhile but probably made better by seeking a different perspective.  If no one around you challenges your ideas, you likely need to broaden your circle.  “Pressure Is a Privilege” – these words come from the title of a book written by Billie Jean King.  Embrace pressure but seek to avoid creating your own self–inflicted stresses.  The professional workplace is extremely competitive and being at the table and having the opportunity to do something special requires that we embrace the challenge in our own unique way.  Perfection may be the enemy of the girl, but we women have quite an arsenal at our disposal when it comes to combating that enemy.