Women, in spite of doing better than men on average, rated themselves lower on the self-assessment questions. Alarmingly, the differences were rather striking.
By Aruna Sankaranarayanan
That men are more assertive during meetings and more likely to negotiate for raises and promotions than women is part of corporate lore. In a recent National Bureau of Economic Research working paper, issued in October 2019, Christine Exley and Judd Kessler, both business school professors, examine another issue that possibly contributes to these gender imbalances at work. Using an experimental design, they tease apart why women undersell themselves when it comes to their own self-assessments. As companies and academic institutions often rely on people’s subjective assessments of their own skills and abilities, the authors argue that a gender gap in self-promotion can seriously jeopardize women’s career trajectories.
Self Promotion: Gender gap can have serious consequences for cos
In the workplace, individuals are often asked, either implicitly or overtly, to discuss their skill sets and performance. These subjective evaluations of their own capabilities and achievements constitute “self-promotion,” according to the authors. Self-promotion includes how a person drafts his resume to how she describes herself during the job interview to how he portrays his contributions during a performance review. As self-promotion can impact a person’s career at multiple points, a gender gap in self-promotion can have serious consequences for companies striving for gender equality. If women downplay themselves relative to men of the same capabilities, how can the playing field be evened out?
To study this phenomenon in a controlled setting, the researchers first gave subjects, recruited online, an analytical task that required them to answer 20 questions. To assess their confidence levels, the participants then had to indicate how many questions they thought they had answered correctly. Lastly, as an index of their self-promotion, the subjects answered “subjective, quantitative self-assessment questions about their performance.”
Women, in spite of doing better than men on average, rated themselves lower on the self-assessment questions. Alarmingly, the differences were rather striking. For example, when asked to agree with subjective statements like “I did well on the test” on a scale of 0 to 100, men averaged a rating of 61 while women scored a mere 45.
Intriguingly, the authors assert that the gender gap was not a function of confidence. Even when participants were told how many questions they got right and how they fared relative to others, the gap in self-promotion persisted. Thus, despite being provided with “perfect information about their absolute and relative past performance,” women were more likely to belittle their achievement when asked to evaluate their own performance on the very same test. Additionally, when participants were presented with self-promotion statements of others, the gender gap continued to persist.
Women judged more harshly than men when engaged in self-promotion
In an interview, career coach and author, Tara Mohr argues that women are judged more harshly than men when they engage in self-promotion. Discouragingly, women themselves despise other women who root for themselves. Further, in the formative years, girls more than boys are conditioned to work hard but not to brag about themselves. So, many women continue to persevere without drawing the spotlight on their achievements. And, often, bosses who are harried, fail to notice the contributions of women.
Mohr notes that when women realize the importance of self-advocacy in the workplace, it is often too late. Additionally, they walk a tightrope, unlike men, because they have to champion themselves without coming across as boastful or unduly competitive. Mohr provides useful pointers that can help women project themselves in positive ways.
Avoid the term ‘self promotion’, focus on making your work visible
First, Mohr suggests that women avoid the term “self-promotion,” even to themselves and focus on “making your work visible.” Instead of tooting your own trumpet, consider how your work and your skill sets can impact others and make a significant difference. If women reframe and talk about their contributions in this way, they are less likely to feel squeamish or appear aggressive to others. Mohr also exhorts women to silence their “inner critic” when discussing their accomplishments.
Likewise, when women feel they are stagnating at a level, have a conversation with your boss on how you can add more value. What skills and expertise do you possess to enhance your impact within the organization? Hopefully, as more women advocate for themselves, perhaps, the culture within organisations will also change so that self-promotion, by men and women, is perceived in the same light.
(The author is Director, PRAYATNA. Views expressed are the author’s own.)