Women make up half of the population, and now nearly half of the workforce, but as they ascend the corporate ladder, fewer of them are represented at the top. Out of DiversityInc’s 2019 Top 50 Companies for Diversity, 42.2% of management positions, 34.5% of senior management positions and 29.4% of board positions were filled by women. When it comes to the Fortune 500, women fill only 22.5% of board seats. Women’s abilities to rise through the ranks can be hampered by a number of institutional and social shortcomings. A study, “The Gender Gap in Self-Promotion,” published in December in the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), found women are less likely to promote their abilities than men — even when they know how well they perform versus others.
The study, “The Gender Gap in Self-Promotion” co-authored by Christine L. Exley and Judd B. Kessler, took 1,500 participants and had each take a 20-question analytical test. They were then asked to assess how well they believed they did on the test. The average participant got half of the questions correct, but there was a 25% difference between how men and women said they believed they performed.
When asked to choose to what extent they agreed with the statement “I performed well on the test,” on a 0–100 scale, the average man answered 61 and the average woman answered 46.
Notably, the women, on average, slightly outperformed the men on the 20-question test. The average woman answered 10 questions correctly, while the average man answered 9.27 questions correctly. However, women still struggled with self-promotion.
Even when participants were told their scores and how they compared to others, women still self-promoted at rates lower than equally-performing men, suggesting the likelihood of a woman self-promoting did not always have to do with how confident she felt about her performance on the test.
“The gender gap in self-promotion persists even when participants are fully informed of their absolute and relative performance,” the study says.
Two of the questions in part two of the experiment referred to how the participants believed they did on the test they took in part one of the experiment. The rest included statements like “I would apply for a job that required me to perform well on the test I took in part 1” and “I would succeed in a job that required me to perform well on the test I took in part 1.”
When there were incentives to inflate their self-assessment, male and female participants did at higher rates, but the gender gap persisted. The report states the difference in self-promotion between the genders could not be attributed to gender differences in responding to the incentive. Even when the participants were made aware of the extent to which others self-promoted, the gender gap did not close. When it was ambiguous whether one’s scores and self-assessments would be shared with employers, the gender gap still did not close. The researchers conclude this gender gap in self-promotion transcends incentives, knowledge of others’ responses and the existence of more ambiguity regarding whether scores and self-promotion would be shared.
Additionally, the researchers concluded the gender gap was not attributable to different opinions between the genders on what constitutes “good work.”
What the researchers determined could cause such a gap are the perceived consequences for self-promotion based on gender.
“In line with the literature on backlash mentioned in our Introduction, a gender gap in self-promotion could reflect women, relative to men, expecting more backlash from employers if they engage in self-promotion,” the report says. “This could arise due to men and women having different beliefs about backlash in general. It could also arise because of fears about gender-specific backlash: women facing more backlash because they are women.”
An example of this gendered “backlash” is the all-too-common double-standard that women who advocate for themselves are “bossy,” while men who do the same are “confident.” A 1998 study by Laurie A. Rudman this report references concludes women who promote themselves face more backlash than men because of social expectations for women to be modest.
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In short, women cannot simply “act more like men” to get ahead because they aren’t treated like men.
Ultimately, self-promotion is a valuable skill when it comes to advancing one’s career. In resumes, job applications, performance reviews and other day-to-day-situations, employees and applicants should promote themselves.
Therefore, implicit fear of self-promotion may be holding women back.
“Because of the prevalence of self-promotion opportunities, this self-promotion gap may contribute to persistent gender gaps in education and labor market outcomes,” the report says.