Conventional wisdom in startup circles suggests one of the best ways to nurture great employees is to encourage them to take risks and fail. The problem is, not everyone is comfortable with this proposition--specifically, most women employees, suggests a new survey.

Consulting firm KPMG surveyed online 2,012 college-educated women ages 18 to 64 in the white-collar workforce in the U.S. last March. Only 43 percent of respondents were open to taking bigger risks associated with career advancement. Meanwhile, 69 percent of those surveyed were comfortable taking small risks. KPMG defines "bigger risks" as moving across the country for a job or switching careers; "smaller risks" included tasks like  presenting to a board of investors or taking on a big assignment.

KPMG's Chief Diversity Officer Michele Meyer-Shipp says a number of economic and cultural factors help explain the findings. Not surprisingly, younger women tend to be bigger risk takers because they have fewer financial and familial obligations holding them back. Forty-five percent of respondents with less than five years' of experience were open to taking big risks versus 37 percent of women with 15 or more years of experience.

Another exception: Women of color are more willing to take bigger risks compared to white women (57 percent versus 38 percent).

"Women of color are a little more comfortable getting uncomfortable because that's how we have to navigate every single day of our lives," says Meyer-Shipp, who is African American. The same findings are evident in entrepreneurial activity: As Inc. has reported, minority women are starting businesses at a much faster rate than their white counterparts.

Women who hold back often tend to worry about how they're being perceived, the survey suggests. When asked about their biggest concerns at work, 41 percent of respondents cite looking like they don't know as much as they should. Twenty-nine percent of women cite not being confident enough. And when they do fail, 86 percent of women admit to being more cautious about their future steps.

It's worth noting that the survey has its limitations. The results may be different at fast-growing startups with a well-established risk-taking culture--or with female leadership. 

Still, if you suspect you might have some women on your team who are holding back, women founders say intentional encouragement can go a long way.  

Heidi Zak, founder of San Francisco-based lingerie company ThirdLove, says at least 80 percent of her 330-person company is made up of women. She makes a point of telling the story of how she created ThirdLove--and the numerous mistakes she made along the way--to new employees.

"We have a culture of trying to highlight moments like that and talk about them so that everyone realizes that it's OK to make mistakes," she says.

Zak also makes sure to identify those employees who they think have potential for internal promotions and start those conversations early to be able to coach them. "It just highlights that there are women in leadership roles who can help promote, within and externally, more women [up the ladder]," she says.

Jennifer Young, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Austin-based online RV marketplace Outdoorsy, says that as one of the few women on the executive team, it's her responsibility to seek out ways to help other women take career risks. She gives the example of a woman who joined the marketing team last year, but six months in, revealed she really wanted to be a product manager. It meant losing a person on her own team, but Young helped connect the employee with the product team and move her into a product manager role. 

As a leader, it's your job to figure out how best to give your employees a voice--even your most introverted team members, says Galyn Bernard, co-founder of New York-based children's clothing startup Primary. She says in meetings she makes a point of directly asking for the opinion of women (and men) on her 40-person team who tend to be more shy.

Boosting the confidence of female employees does not need to take much effort, say the founders. Zak says she and other executives hold informal coffee chats with their employees to see how they're doing and where they want to go in their careers. Outdoorsy, which has 35 women in its 100-person company, created a Slack channel called "Ladies" to help foster community.

"I'm a very confident person," Zak says. "I think part of my confidence comes from being able to say 'I don't know everything, and I'm learning on the job, too.'"  

Published on: Jan 18, 2019