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Women: You know more than you think

Woman with glasses

You know that remarkable moment when you recognize yourself — your beliefs, your patterns, your life experience — in something you are reading?

A while back, I was reading about a study on financial literacy around the world.

Here’s what it found: When researchers gave women and men a short quiz that tested their financial literacy, men did better. Not too shocking, right? Men are exposed to more informal financial education and are encouraged to learn about investing and money management. Women often are not.

But there was another part of the research findings that practically knocked me out of my chair.

“When we took away the ‘do not know’ option [from the multiple choice financial tests] women were no less likely to choose the wrong answer. So, if forced to pick an answer, women seem to know as much as men,” Professor Annamaria Lusardi, one of the principal researchers, reported.

In other words, the gender gap in the test scores was a result of women choosing “I don’t know” more often than men. When that option was taken away, they performed just as well as their male counterparts.

They knew as much as the men, but they were less likely to trust what they knew. They were less likely to make a guess based on their leanings, their partial knowledge or their hunches.

That was even true on this test, when (unlike in life), there was absolutely no penalty for making the wrong choice — no risk involved. Yet many women found it more comfortable to choose “I don’t know” than to venture a guess.

Sound familiar?

This is where I recognized myself, and so many women I know. We say, “I don’t know” when we do know. We say “I don’t know” when our knowledge may be partial, but it’s enough to point us in the right direction.

The reasons we do this, of course, are not that we are crazy or deficient in some way, or just not confident enough. The reasons have to do with what we’ve been taught and what we’ve learned through our life experience.

Boys are taught to cover up anything that could be perceived as weakness or vulnerability; they start getting trained early on to hide uncertainty of all kinds.

At worst, this produces B.S. artists and unwise decisions. At best, it helps competent people lean into what they do know and move forward wisely in the face of uncertainty.

Girls, by contrast, are often socially validated for expressing confusion and uncertainty and turning outward for help and answers. Just think about the size of the “advice to women” industry compared to that of men.

Girls and women are also more likely to be penalized for being wrong. Bias — in women and men — causes women’s mistakes to be seen as more significant indicators of our capabilities than they are in a man. We learn quickly we may be judged harshly for being wrong, and so we become more conservative in speaking up if we aren’t sure about something we’re saying.

Yet you can run this experiment: What happens if you remove the “do not know” option for a while, just as the researchers removed it from their quiz? What if you push a little harder to see what answer you’d lean into if you had to just pick one?

Bottom line? You know more than you think you do. And we need you to share it.

A version of this blog originally appeared on Refinery29.com.

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Tara Mohr is an expert on women’s leadership and well-being and creator of Play Big women’s leadership programs. She is the author of Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead, named a Best Book of the Year by Apple’s iBooks.

Views expressed in blogs, posts and user comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Network of Executive Women or its Officers, Board members and corporate partners.