When You Benefit From Being Underestimated, and When You Pay for It

There have been times in my life when I felt that, because I'm a woman, I have been treated unfairly in the workplace—times when I was passed over for leadership positions, or less trusted with responsibilities that are traditionally given to men. Then again, I've also felt at times that I've benefited from low expectations - particularly when handling something women aren't supposed to do well. (Like the time when diagnosing and repairing a simple computer glitch suddenly rendered me a "computer whiz" around the office. Come on, people.)

If you are a member of a group that is stereotyped as less competent, then you are no doubt well aware that stereotypes do in fact influence how your coworkers and supervisors see you. What you may not have realized is that their influence can work for or against you, depending on the type of evaluation you are receiving.

Psychologists who study the way human beings make judgments distinguish between using minimum standards (enough to make you suspect something is true) and confirmatory standards (enough to make you certain that something is true).

Imagine you are trying to figure out whether or not Steve is a dishonest guy. Minimum standards of dishonesty would probably be met the first time you catch Steve in a lie—you would start to suspect that Steve can't be trusted, but you wouldn't be sure. After all, everybody lies from time to time. To meet confirmatory standards, however, you'd probably have to catch Steve in a number of lies—enough to conclude that he is more than usually deceptive.

Stereotypes affect both our minimum and confirmatory standards for a given trait, but in opposite directions. For example, part of the stereotype for women, particularly in the business world, is that they are less competent than men. Studies show that because of this stereotype, minimum standards of competence for women are lower than they are for men. In other words, you are quicker to suspect that a woman is smart than you are to suspect that a man is. That's because when a woman does something "smart" it stands out more, since it is (unfortunately) more surprising. When it comes to minimum standards of competence, women seem to benefit from being underestimated.

Unfortunately, the reverse is true when it comes to confirmatory standards, which are higher for women when it comes to competence. So in order for someone to be certain that a woman is smart, she needs to provide more evidence of competence than a man would. For a woman, you need to be consistently really smart to prove you aren't actually stupid.

These differing standards have real world consequences. In one study, female candidates for a job were more likely to be placed on a short list than males (evidence for the lower minimal standard of competence), but less likely than male candidates to actually be hired (evidence for the higher confirmatory standard of competence). In another study, White law school applicants with weak credentials were judged more positively than Black applicants with identical credentials (further evidence of the higher confirmatory standard for a stereotyped group).

So stereotyped people (women, minorities) will have an easier time than their White male counterparts when minimum standards are used to judge them, and a harder time when confirmatory standards are used. But what determines which standards are used?

In a recent set of studies, researchers found that set of standards that gets used is often determined by the formality of the evaluation. A formal record or log (like an end-of-the-year review) invokes the use of the confirmatory standard, while informal evaluation and personal note-taking (like the kind of feedback your boss gives you at a weekly meeting) invokes the use of the minimum standard.

The researchers asked each participant in the studies to review information about a company trainee with a spotty performance record (i.e., he or she had lost a file on a client, missed an important deadline, and forgotten a scheduled appointment with a client, among other things). The participants were asked to either "take informal notes" that would be for purely personal use, or to keep a "formal employment log" that would become a part of the employee's permanent record.

They found that participants were more likely to record negative behaviors in their personal notes for White males than for women or Black males, but less likely to do so for White males in their formal notes. In other words, judges noticed and recorded fewer negative behaviors for the groups stereotyped as incompetent (women and Blacks) when using minimum standards in the informal evaluation, but noticed and recorded more of the same behaviors when using the confirmatory standards of the formal evaluation.

At the end of both evaluations, participants were asked if the trainee should be kept on at the company or terminated. Not surprisingly, White males were more likely to be recommended for termination when evaluated informally, and less likely to be fired when evaluated formally.

The participants in these studies weren't overt racists or sexists—in fact, they weren't even aware that they were evaluating employees differently because of their race or gender. Like much of today's workplace bias, its influence occurred at an unconscious level, perpetrated by otherwise decent and fair-minded people. But even if its workings are intangible, the results of bias are anything but. When different standards are unknowingly used, people end up being more likely to be hired or fired because of their gender or race, and that is unacceptable.

The good new is, unconscious bias loses much of its power once we recognize that it exists. Once we become aware that we are apt to use different standards to evaluate people doing the same job, and once we understand when we are likely to be a little too lenient, or a little too critical, we can adjust accordingly. Probe your own thinking for bias—ask yourself, would I come to the same conclusion about this employee's behavior if she were a he, and if he were White? Chances are you can make fair decisions, once you realize how and why you might make unfair ones.

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