Women Sell Selves Short When Evaluating Their Work
That tendency contributes to the gender pay gap; how to fix it
Somewhere in a far-off land there is a perfect workplace where everyone is evaluated solely on how well — or not — they do their job. Period. Full stop.
Back here in the real world, our human biases and behaviors too often play a role. It’s not solely the obvious problem of having a jerk of a boss who creates a toxic environment. Even the good managers in workplaces brimming with good intentions, where everyone thinks they are doing right by each other, can fall under the spell of a disconnect that tends to favor men over women.
Women, typically, underplay their own performance. And that self-effacement can impact career advancement.
Performance review anxiety?
A common component of performance reviews is to ask direct reports to submit a self-evaluation. That works just fine for all the objective deliverables, such as sales targets. You hit it, or you didn’t.
But reviews invariably also include subjective self-evaluation. How would you rate your work? What was your biggest challenge? What do you want to improve?
This is where women needlessly sell themselves short, which becomes magnified by the fact that their male colleagues tend to bring a bit of overconfidence to their self-assessment.
In a series of experiments, academic researchers found that even when men and women performed equally on tests, men self-rated their performance 33% higher than women did theirs.
To be clear, there was no objective difference in actual performance between men and women in the experiments. Women did the work just as well — actually, in the experiment their performance was even slightly better. But when asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 100 how they thought they did on a 20-question math and science test, men, on average, gave themselves a score of 61. Women gave themselves a score of 46.
It’s easy to point the finger at the other gender for being “wrong.” Women can suggest that men are too full of themselves, and men can shrug that women are too self-restrained. And it’s reasonable to suggest that it’s management that needs to up its game and course-correct for all the workplace practices that contribute to the gender pay gap.
But this latest research suggests that self-awareness has a place in the solution as well, for women. Especially if they don’t want to wait around for male bosses and male-dominated workplaces to straighten things out.
For the ladies: The next time you are in a position to negotiate, evaluate or advocate for yourself, start from the assumption that you’re likely too hard on yourself.
In a purely hypothetical situation that, um, may resonate, let’s assume that a male and female employee with the same job and the same objective skills are asked to rate their performance on a scale of 1 to 10. If gender tendencies play out, let’s say that the woman gives herself a 7.5 and the man rates himself a 9. Now, switch gears and imagine you are the manager who has one promotion to give out, or needs to divvy up a finite bonus pool. The self-rating may be just one data point that is considered, but it subtly can play into decisions and negotiations.
At the least, the woman’s self-dinging provides cover for a boss who throws up his hands and gives the promotion or bigger bonus to the guy: “She rated herself lower!”
Even though it may be inadvertent, women’s tendency to underrate their performance creates a lower anchor for their manager to use in a negotiation.
It can also impact getting the next job. In a related experiment that was part of the same research, participants who rated their performance higher on the 1 to 100 scale were more likely to be hired and offered a better pay package.
Yes, it would be great if management created mechanisms to offset these gender tendencies when evaluating current and potential employees. And more men who recognized their overconfidence would be welcome. But as a practical matter, women can also step up and check their tendency to be too humble.