Credit Where It’s Due

Why do women continue to be underrepresented in roles of the highest authority, responsibility and status?

Past research shows a continued bias against working women due to gender stereotyping. The cliché that women are caring and relationship-based rather than forceful and ambitious can lead to a lack of promotion to more influential roles in organizations, especially when these roles are considered traditionally male. Also, at the same time that they’re being denied promotions and influential roles, studies have demonstrated that women who behave too forcefully or highlight their ambition can be negatively evaluated for these behaviours too.

A more recent explanation comes from new research conducted by psychologists Madeline Heilman and Michelle Haynes at New York University. The psychologists observed that as well as being perceived negatively—either too forceful or not forceful enough, women are given less credit for the success they achieve when they work jointly on tasks with men doing “men’s work”.

And it gets even more difficult to give women credit when the quality of the work completed is hard to assess, or when no tangible product is produced, they say. Yet, when the work done by women is easily seen as effective, of superior quality or a useful product has been produced, stereotypes still prevail. That is, in a joint male-female working group, men are often disproportionately credited with responsibility for an excellent outcome.

The impact of this on women’s career advancement is significant. Nowadays, most people work on teams, and when the job is defined as traditionally male, women will be working almost exclusively with men. This makes it even harder to properly evaluate women’s performance and competence. Without an accurate evaluation of women’s on-the-job effectiveness, it is difficult to get promoted.

Furthermore, the idea that women have to work harder to be seen as just as competent as the average man, was borne out in their research. They found that women’s performance must be rated in the top 10th to 20th percentile to be considered as competent as the average man’s.

With the increased participation of women in the work force, organizations can not afford to overlook competent women employees because of these biases. Women who are denied promotions or given unchallenging assignments may seek another employer. If they stay with the biased employer, they will be underutilized by the company.

Heilman and Haynes observed that both men and women are guilty of stereotypical assumptions about gender roles. The authors noted that both rated women as less competent than men when they worked on mixed-sex teams.

According to the researchers, to obtain evaluations that get the right people promoted, staff must be assessed according to the quality of their work and identified as having been responsible for the superior job being assessed. For women, it can be hard to have their work quality accurately assessed and when it is defined as exemplary, the tendency is for the men on the team to get most of the credit.

When employers are thinking about whom to promote next, performance evaluations are important ways of identifying top performers. Yet, the research shows the data may be flawed and the assumptions made about women’s performance a hindrance to identifying the best candidate. When finding an exemplary successor to a role (an increasingly pressing problem given the spate of retirements due in the next ten years) it behooves companies to do their homework.

There are five ways to ensure women’s performance is assessed accurately:

1. Obtain The Right Information

Employers may obtain accurate performance data by requesting reports on the work group’s performance. Breaking the report into sections that detail information about each individual team member’s performance on a team task may help. Don’t just rely on a global team report. The researchers suggest that when women’s contributions to the team were itemized, the possibility for bias decreased. Make sure the information is accurate and specific. Vague statements about member’s contributions will encourage bias. Seek out examples of effective performance particularly for women. Include a section in the report that provides brief biographies of the team members that include past accomplishments. The researchers found it is more difficult to judge accomplished women as less competent when performance reviewers know about their past achievements. This knowledge combats the built-in bias some have.

2. Raise Awareness

When training managers to track performance, it is important that they know about the tendency toward seeing women in mixed -sex teams as less competent than their male counterparts and evaluating them as such. Knowing that both men and women experience the same bias may offer little comfort to employees who are passed over for promotion, but recognizing that anyone who evaluates performance is susceptible helps. Once again, creating processes that thoroughly evaluate team performance and individual team member contributions to success can combat built-in bias.

3. Identify Allies

Not all supervisors demonstrate the same degrees of bias. It is important to identify managers who can support women who are moving up the corporate ladder. Keep track of your accomplishments on the teams you’re part of. Be sure to note items you took responsibility for and what results your efforts netted. Be specific about where you took a leadership role and how you influenced the process. Tie your accomplishments on this team to past successes—recording how a past success informed a current success, for example, can help others see your past record of excellence. If it appears your skills are being wasted in an organization that is having trouble with its biases, it may be time to find a more progressive workplace.

4. Keep Hiring Women

Hiring women to non-traditional occupations is important to breaking down stereotypes. If we repeatedly see people in roles or functions we don’t normally associate them with, we have a better chance of changing our perceptions. When more women enter a predominantly male workplace, they begin to be more accepted and less of an anomaly. At the same time, letting people know about women’s past accomplishments–why they got the job and highlighting their contributions, is important when introducing new women recruits into a traditionally male workplace.

Remaining conscious of our biases is the first step in dealing with unfair practices. Creating processes that counter biases such as team performance reports that highlight individual contributions, identifying who took responsibility for what task and describing the outcome may help us avoid blind spots. And since we all have them, we can take responsibility for catching what we may be missing—a chance to give an exemplary employee a break.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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