How Women Decide: A Review

In her book How Women Decide: What’s True, What’s Not, and What Strategies Spark the Best Choices? (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), cognitive psychologist Therese Huston tells the story of Vivienne Ming. While still in her early 20s and a less-than-serious college student, Ming caught the movie bug. She and a friend formed a production company and selected an unknown short story to adapt for their first script. Since she had no money, Ming began scheduling pitch meetings with potential funders. In spite of the fact that she had no education or experience in filmmaking, investors proved surprisingly willing to take a risk on Ming’s project.  In a matter of months, she had secured commitments for the $100,000 she needed to make her film.

                For a variety of reasons, Vivienne never made her movie.  Instead, she got serious about school, earning a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and theoretical neuroscience. Over the next twenty years, Ming taught at Stanford and Berkeley, consulted with the Gates Foundation and the White House on educational technology, and founded five different companies. In 2015, Inc. Magazine named her one of its “Ten Women to Watch in Tech.

                In spite of all this success—in spite of her proven track record of business success and her documented expertise--Vivienne now has to work much harder to find investors than she did when she was pitching her movie idea. She says that investors “treat me like an uncle would treat his seven-year-old niece when she’s showing off her stamp collection.” (120)  Although she is successful in securing investors, Vivienne has to work a lot harder to prove that she’s worthy of trust these days.

                Huston says, “I believe Vivienne meets more resistance now because now, she’s a woman.  When Vivienne approached funders for the movie years ago, she introduced herself as Evan.  Vivienne is transgender.” (121) Huston doesn’t think investors are discriminating against Vivienne because she’s trans; most potential investors don’t know that. Instead, Huston argues, they are operating from their deep-seated, unconscious beliefs that women are less skilled at making good decisions than men and thus are less trustworthy when it comes to taking risks on women’s ideas.  People see risk-taking as a male behavior, and they’re more willing to jump on board when a man proposes a project that involves risk.

                Huston’s book is about how men and women actually make decisions as well as  how men and women perceive the decision-making skills of each gender. For women, decision-making is fraught with Catch 22s, whether they are making decisions about their professional lives, their personal lives, or even their health care choices.  Huston says, “When a man makes 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.” (1) What’s more, Huston says, this belief that women are poorer decision makers than men helps create the gender gap in the leadership ranks in all areas of our society.

Drawing on hundreds of scholarly studies, pop psychology literature, and interviews with dozens of women, Huston has written a revealing and readable guide to the way women actually make decisions and the ways that those decisions are perceived. She notes that women are seen as capable of making small, supportive decisions in organizations, but not the big, visible ones.

Many decision-making behaviors praised in men are seen as weakness in women. For example, when men seek consensus before making a decision, they are seen as responsive to staff members. When women do the same, they are seen as weak and incompetent. When men take time to examine multiple options, they are seen as careful and deliberate while women who do the same are seen as indecisive and lacking in self-confidence.  What’s more, women must navigate an ever-present tension between being decisive and being responsive to others, and female decision-makers are frequently criticized for erring in either direction. As Huston said, “Society expects women to ask for input and share the credit but simultaneously criticizes them for being dependent on others.” (117) 

Using scores of studies from the realms of psychology and management science, Huston debunks many of the negative stereotypes about women’s decision-making. She finds that women’s decision-making is at least as data-driven as men’s and that while women may cite intuition in that decision-making, they are constantly testing that intuition against evidence. Some pundits have argued that women have lower levels of self-confidence which translates into less willingness to take risks, but  Huston presents voluminous research to show that over-confidence is actually an obstacle to good decision-making.  Many studies have shown that high levels of confidence can lead to poorer decision-making than levels of confidence based on an appropriate assessment of one’s skills, preparation, and self-knowledge. Women are also stereotyped as less able to function under stress, but Huston outlines research that demonstrates that stress often leads men to make poor decisions under pressure while women often make better ones.

Huston argues that both men and women are guilty of unconsciously stereotyping women’s decision-making, a finding that certainly squares with psychologist Mahzarin Benaji’s research on implicit bias. (For an excellent layperson’s introduction to Benaji’s research, listen to her interview with On Being’s Krista Tippett.)    Huston intends her book to raise awareness about our implicit negative beliefs about women’s decision-making as well as to provide women with some tips for combatting those stereotypes.  Among her suggestions:

·         When seeking to sell people on taking a risk on a project, women can talk about successful risks they’ve taken in the past. 

·         “Think of confidence as a dial, something you can turn up or down.” (208)  Dial down the confidence when you are working toward a decision and later when you do a post-mortem on the results of that decision; dial it up after you’ve made the decision and set about implementing it.

·         Learn how to project confidence with your body.

·         Research shows that the more options you consider when engaging in decision-making, the better your decision-making will be, so keep lots of options on the table as you move toward a decision.

·         Set a “tripwire” to remind you to re-evaluate a reversible decision at a given point in the implementation process. 

·         Become historians of your own decision-making.  Keep a daily journal about your decision-making:  what did you decide, why, and how. Record everything from little decisions like why to make a particular household purchase to big ones in your professional and personal lives.  Huston recommends you use one of those five-year diaries that allow you to record four or five lines about each day of the year; this format, she says, makes it easy to review your decision-making, something that’s important because women tend to second-guess their decisions months and years later. 


If you’ve ever found people routinely and reflexively questioning the decisions you make or if you second-guess your own decision-making skills,  Huston’s book is an important and thought-provoking read.