No Credit Where Credit Is Due: Attributional Rationalization of Women’s Success in Male-Female Teams
Providing information about male and female employees’ individual contributions to a group task, or information about female employees’ competence in previous tasks, reduces negative assessments about women’s contribution to group work.
Despite the dramatic increase in the number of women in the workforce, women remain underrepresented in roles that are the highest in authority, responsibility, and prestige in organizations. This bias in hiring and promotions may be based on gender stereotypes in performance appraisal processes. Research has shown that when there is ambiguity about performance, such as when there is no tangible work product or when the merit of the work is difficult to assess, women are evaluated as less competent than men.
There also is ambiguity about performance when people work in groups. Thus, when women work in groups with men and there is no information given to employers about their individual contributions, stereotype-based expectations may lead to the discounting of women’s contributions. Men might rise faster within an organization when women are given disproportionately less credit for the success they achieve when they work jointly on tasks. Therefore, providing clear and decisive information about the quality of individual team members’ performance might be important for women’s career progress.
Three experiments analyzed the degree to which gender stereotypes contribute to the discounting of women’s contributions to group work. Participants read a description about a mixed-sex pair that had worked together to produce a joint work product that was highly successful, and were randomly assigned to evaluate either the male or the female team member in terms of competence, influence on task outcome, and leadership behavior. Participants were given either group information or individual information about the performance of specific tasks related to the successful group outcome.
When the only information available was about the group’s performance, women were rated as less competent, having less influence, and having less of a leadership role than their male counterparts. However, when people were privy to information about individual performance, and not only the overall group performance, women and men were evaluated as equally skilled.
- When research participants were provided with group performance information only, female employees were rated significantly less competent on average (5.6 on a 9-point scale) than male employees (7.3 on a 9-point scale). However, when participants were provided with individual performance information, there was no significant difference in the average competence ratings of male and female employees (8.2 vs 8.2 respectively).
- Women were rated as significantly less influential on the average (5.3 on a 9-point scale) than men (6.5 on a 9-point scale) when the only performance information available was about the group. Yet, the average ratings of women and men were similar with respect to influence when individual performance information was given (7.6 points and 7.3, respectively).
- When participants were only provided with group performance information, women were viewed as taking less of a leadership role than men. With group feedback, women received an average score of 4.7 on a 9-point scale for leadership, versus men’s average score of 6.5. When participants were given individual assessment information, women’s average scores were 6.4, compared with men’s 7.2 (not a statistically significant difference).
- When participants had clear information about specific and unique tasks that the female employee completed, or unequivocally positive information about the performance effectiveness of the female employee in previous work, differences in perceptions of competence, influence, and leadership between genders disappeared, even when the only performance information available was about the group.
Providing individual information about male and female employees’ contributions to a task, reducing ambiguity in the individual contribution to the task or highlighting females’ positive performance in previous tasks, might help overcome negative stereotypes of women’s contributions to group work.
In the first study, 60 undergraduates (25 men and 35 women) participated. Participants were asked to evaluate the work of a fictional employee who had worked with a colleague of the opposite sex to complete a joint task on which they had been successful. They received background information about both team members, a summary of notes regarding how the task proceeded, and a task feedback form. Participants were also told that while both employees would be evaluated over the course of the study, due to time constraints, they would only be evaluating only one of them (either the male or the female). The second experimental variation involved assigning participants to either receive individual performance ratings or ratings indicating how both team members had performed jointly. After reviewing the information provided, participants were instructed to complete a research questionnaire for their assigned employee that asked about perceived competence, level of influence in the group outcome, responsibility, and leadership, all on 9-point scales.
The second study was identical to the first, with two variations. First, all participants received group performance information. Second, participants learned that group task was structured such that team members worked on either overlapping tasks (in which case individual contribution was ambiguous) or unique tasks (in which case individual contribution was clear). Participants in the second study were 61 undergraduates, 43 women and 18 men, in an introductory psychology course at New York University.
The third study also used the same general procedure as the first, with two exceptions. First, participants all received group performance information. Second, the researchers varied the specificity of information about the male and female worker’s past on-the-job work competencies. Participants were given specific information, vague information, or no information about the on-the-job work effectiveness of the team member whom they were assigned to evaluate. Participants were 90 undergraduate students, 35 men and 55 women, in an introductory psychology course at New York University.