New Data on the Glass Ceiling

A researcher at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management has found evidence that suggests female managers construct their own glass ceiling by underestimating how they are perceived by their associates.

Often in these blogs I discuss research that I find in academic papers, the formal write-ups of research studies. This week, however, I’m relying on a press release on the Web site of the Academy of Management, about a paper that was presented at the group’s annual meeting this week by Scott Taylor, the researcher in this study. The findings are so interesting that I don’t want to wait until I can get my hands on the researcher’s own write-up.

Taylor studied 251 male and female managers, of whom 171 had graduate degrees in management. The subjects were asked to rate themselves on nine skills or traits that are considered essential in managerial positions: communication ability, initiative, self-awareness, self-control, empathy, bond-building, teamwork, conflict management, and trustworthiness. Ratings on these same factors were also obtained from supervisors, peers, and subordinates. Each subject was asked to estimate the ratings that were given by two of those sources, chosen randomly. In other words, how am I perceived by others?

On average, the women expected lower ratings than they actually received. So did the men, but by a much smaller margin. The men received a mean rating of 3.86 (on a scale of 0 to 5), while making a mean prediction of 3.73. The women, by contrast, received a mean rating of 4.02, although they had predicted 3.64. The math: The men’s predictions were off by 0.13, whereas the women’s were off by 0.38, almost three times as much.

These low expectations were not the result of a lack of self-confidence. The women’s self-ratings were as high as the men’s. They did not doubt their own skills, but they believed that these skills were not recognized by others.

Nor were the low expectations the recognition of harsh workplace realities. Note that the average rating that the women received, 4.02, was higher than the men’s, 3.86.

Taylor theorizes that his findings show the legacy of past workplace realities. He said 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."

That may also explain why older women showed a greater amount of misperception than younger women, although at all age levels the women had lower expectations than men of the same age.

One conclusion to draw from these findings is that women create a glass ceiling for themselves by expecting to do the work but get little of the glory. Taylor suggests that performance appraisals, which usually include workers’ self-ratings plus the ratings of others, should also include workers’ predictions of the ratings they will get. That would generate more open discussions about expectations and recognition, from which women in particular would benefit.

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