When Sheryl Sandberg writes books about how women can advance in the business world, no doubt her only goal is to help female achievers reach their maximum potential. The same obviously goes for the legions of academic researchers and expert commentators who study and advise female entrepreneurs and corporate high flyers. But could all this awareness-raising actually have a hidden dark side?

That's the worry product manager Rohini Vibha expresses in a thought-provoking piece on Medium recently. In it, she recounts her own struggles with becoming a business leader in a male-dominated industry and suggests that efforts to support and help those like her may actually have unintended negative consequences.

Learning to Worry About Being a Woman

Vibha was never one to worry about how her gender might affect her performance or perceptions of her performance in college, she reports. The thought simply never crossed her mind. Then she started working.

"I met the gender gap when I started my professional career, in an industry where there reportedly isn't a gender gap in salary. In my annual review, a male manager once provided me with a 'likely' explanation for why others perceived me as 'only strong' while he perceived me as 'outstanding,'" she recalls. "'Sometimes,' he said, 'it's hard for women to have an edge.' He provided no specific way for me to become more 'edgy' (except perhaps a sex change?) and I left with the understanding that I would forever be disadvantaged in the category of edge."

Were this manager's intentions good? Probably. But the effect on Vibha wasn't. These sorts of conversations about gender, in her case, simply made her self-conscious. "[My feminine issues] were in my head because the conversation about Corporate America's gender gap is never-ending. From the glass ceiling to leaning in, the inequality between women and men in the workforce is continually in the spotlight," she writes.

The Psychology of Highlighting Gender

Vibha's post is rooted in her personal experience, but she also notes that psychological research suggests she's far from alone in feeling "helpful" discussions of gender can backfire. "Based on its implications in my own life, I would argue that the discussion of disadvantage is handicapping women more than the gender gap itself. And there is psychological research to justify this," she writes before describing a study out of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that showed that, when students were told their gender performed worse at a task, the performance of individuals of that gender dropped by 12 percent.

Vibha's conclusion from this research: "This tells me that as a young woman, my success is dependent on hearing about effective individuals and their strengths. Not what corporate women struggle with. Not what corporate males are good at."

Which isn't to say that dreadful diversity statistics and issues of equal opportunity don't need discussing. Of course they very much do. But perhaps there is a better way to have that conversation.

"Maybe the message is being driven home in the wrong way, or in the wrong minds," Vibha writes. "There needs to be a way to amplify the voice of women without amplifying the voice in women's heads. Young women should be encouraged to emulate leaders based on successful leadership qualities. Feedback for improvement should include truly actionable suggestions."

"Let's start a new movement. A movement to attribute successes--and failures--to changeable, tangible behaviors instead of sex," she concludes.

Do you agree that the discussion around women in business sometimes plants more self-doubt than it uproots?

Published on: Oct 20, 2014