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Women greatly underrate their standing with bosses and other workers, study finds

July 1, 2009

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Do women handicap themselves on the job by chronically underrating their standing with bosses and other workers? New research suggests so -- and lack of self-confidence isn't the problem, it finds. 
"When asked to predict how they were rated by their managers, direct reports, and peers, women were significantly poorer at predicting others' ratings compared to men," according to a study to be presented to the annual meeting of the Academy of Management (Chicago, August 9-11. "[T]hese women were confident in their ability (compared to men) but were unaware of how others viewed them."
And their predictions invariably erred on the low side, the study makes clear. Women managers, the research suggests, believe that others rate them substantially lower than they actually do on a whole range of social and emotional competencies essential to effective leadership.
The study, by Scott N. Taylor of the University of New Mexico, finds the difference between genders to be most striking when it comes to supervisors. Where men actually overestimated slightly how their boss would rate them, women underestimated their ratings on average by about 11 percent, with their mean prediction being 3.60 on a scale of five and the actual mean rating being 4.03 on a scale of five. So pronounced was the difference between genders that the likelihood that it was due to chance was less than one in a hundred.
Overall, Prof. Taylor found, the gender gap was largest for workers aged fifty and above. Men's predictions of how others would rate them -- bosses, peers, and direct reports alike -- were right on target, while women's estimates averaged 11 percent below the actual rating (3.60 on a scale of five compared to 4.03 on a scale of five).
"Something may be occurring in organizations such that, the older women become, the poorer they are at predicting the ratings of others," comments Taylor. "Or perhaps the difference between older and younger women in our sample is simply generational rather than something that developed over time. It should be noted, though, that even younger women tended to underestimate others' ratings by much more than their male contemporaries did."
The striking differences between genders emerged unexpectedly out of a broader study on what is called multi-source feedback assessment (MSF), a management tool used by many companies in which an individual rates himself or herself and also is rated by others, typically by supervisors, subordinates, and peers. The 251 research subjects consisted of five groups of managers -- 171 alumni of a university's MBA and executive doctorate programs; 27 executives of an online travel agency; 18 university management staff; 25 executives of a delivery-truck manufacturing company; and 10 execs from unidentified organizations.
At the heart of the study was a standard survey instrument that measures nine elements of emotional and social competence essential to leadership -- communication ability, initiative, self-awareness, self-control, empathy, bond-building, teamwork, conflict management, and trustworthiness. Subjects were instructed to rate themselves and to request that supervisors, subordinates, and peers rate them as well. Finally, each subject was asked to estimate the ratings made by two of these sources chosen randomly.
While men's average predictions often underestimated the ratings of others, women's average predictions invariably underestimated them and were much further from the mark. For example, men predicted for themselves an overall average rating from others of 3.73 on a scale of 5, which was 0.13 less than the actual mean rating of 3.86. Women, in contrast, predicted an average overall rating for themselves of 3.64, which was 0.38 below the actual mean rating of 4.02. In other words, the discrepancy between prediction and actuality in this case was almost three times greater for women than it was for men.
What accounts for these results? "The most obvious answer, lack of confidence, can easily be ruled out," Prof. Taylor says. "How do we know? Women rated themselves just as highly as men rated themselves, an encouraging development from the norm of two or three decades ago."
Closer to the answer, he thinks, is that "women are so accustomed to decades of being 'disappeared' and hearing histories of women whose contributions went unnoticed that they assume these conditions exist to the same extent today. As a result, women in our sample predicted others would not notice their work, when in reality others rated them higher than men on a whole range of emotional and social competencies basic to leadership."
Taylor believes that companies should make prediction part of the multisource-feedback process, which today consists typically of self-rating combined with being rated by others. "From the standpoint of management development in general, predicted ratings would enable deeper, more open discussions than traditional MSF fosters," he says. "And what this study suggests is that women would particularly benefit."
The study, entitled "It May Not Be What You Think: Gender Differences in Predicting Emotional and Social Competence," will be among several thousand research reports presented at the Academy of Management meeting, to be held in Chicago from August 9th to 11th.  Founded in 1936, the Academy is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has close to 19,000 members in 102 countries, including about 11,000 in the United States. This year's annual meeting will draw more than 9,000 scholars and practitioners for sessions on a host of subjects relating to business strategy, corporate organization and investment, the workplace, careers, technology development, and other management-related topics.
Media Coverage:
AOL Finance Daily. Glass ceiling: Women to blame?. (Saturday, August 15, 2009).
Associated Press. Women underrate bosses' opinion of them. (Monday, August 10, 2009). Women's performance: A perception gap?. (Monday, August 10, 2009).
SHRM Online. Women expect others to rate them low. (Friday, August 14, 2009).
The Globe & Mail. The office: A weekly look at work culture. (Monday, August 10, 2009).
Women on the Web. Study: Women underestimate themselves in the workplace. (Wednesday, August 12, 2009). Women Underestimate Their Performance on Job. (Wednesday, August 05, 2009).

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