When accomplishments come back to haunt you: the negative effect of competence signals on women's performance evaluations
Women with higher achievements tend to have lower performance evaluations when assessed by male evaluators who are more likely to align their beliefs with group-based hierarchies in society.
During hiring processes, candidates highlight their accomplishments to convey their competence to carry out the duties of a position. These achievements, also known as “competence signals”, include educational attainment, job rank, and past job successes.
Competence signals are not only used to determine hiring qualifications, as managers also remain positively disposed toward employees with greater competence signals long after their hire. Managers often use these signals when evaluating employee performance in their role.
However, there are gendered differences in how evaluators respond to competence signals from female versus male candidates. Previous research suggests that women who are hired and who possess stronger competence signals receive lower performance evaluations than women who are hired and who possess relatively weaker competence signals, even when both groups are evaluated for identical work. It is hypothesized that this phenomenon exists because gender stereotypes for women (e.g., warm, nurturing, sensitive) are inconsistent with the stereotypical drivers of career success (e.g., agency, assertiveness, dominance) often attributed to men. Because of these stereotypes, evaluators may subconsciously believe that high-achieving women threaten the distinction between genders and subsequently act to reduce this threat.
For this article, the authors conducted three studies to determine whether women with higher competence signals would be negatively affected in performance evaluations conducted by their supervisors. The first study consisted of a field experiment in the U.S. Armed Forces, while the second and third studies consisted of laboratory experiments that simulated a work environment where individuals were asked to give performance evaluations to fictitious subordinates.
This study found a negative effect of competence signals on the performance evaluation of women only when they were evaluated by men with a high social dominance-oriented personality.
- Study 1 found that, when controlling for tenure in the military, female subordinates received lower performance evaluations as their pay grade approached that of their supervisors This phenomenon did not occur for male subordinates.
- Studies 2, 3a and 3b found that strong competence signals led to lower performance evaluations only when female subordinates were evaluated by male evaluators with high social-dominance orientation (SDO). High SDO indicates a greater likelihood to support group-based hierarchy and the domination of “inferior” groups by “superior” groups. For this reason, SDO is often associated with discriminatory attitudes and behaviors.
- Using objective measures of job performance eliminated the negative effect women’s strong competence signal had on their performance evaluations when evaluated by a male, high SDO evaluator.
The findings from the field study (Study 1) and two experiments (Studies 2 and 3) contribute to the literature on competence signals as a mechanism that can produce negative outcomes at work based on gender.
Study 1: This study was conducted in the U.S. Armed Forces, where 193 (186 after seven participant pairs were dropped) commanding officers provided performance evaluations for their subordinate legal advisors. The competence signal was inferred from the individuals’ pay grade, which in the legal branch of the military ranges from 1 to 10. The hypothesis was that a commanding officer’s performance evaluation of a female legal advisor would drop as her pay grade approached his own, while this would not be the case for male legal advisors.
Study 2: A total of 271 college-educated adults participated in an online study where they were asked to act as managers in a company that developed creative ideas to solve their clients’ problems. They were told that they would be working with a subordinate whom they would have to evaluate at the end of the study. Researchers utilized fake subordinate profiles to manipulate the relevant variables (gender, competence signals) and hold constant objective, on-the-job performance. Participants were asked to evaluate their subordinate based on a list of 10 ideas the subordinate had supposedly generated to solve a client problem.
Study 3a: 122 male adults at a business school in London, United Kingdom were told they would be acting as senior sales managers supervising two subordinate employees (one male, one female) in a software development firm. Participants were told that they had to submit an important sales pitch, and were handed a draft copy that included hand-written edits made by the subordinate employee. The number of corrections made by the employee was manipulated to be either low or high. Participants were then told to prepare the pitch to a imaginary client, including whatever edits they deemed most appropriate. After submission, participants evaluated their subordinate’s performance.
Study 3b: This study replicated the design of Study 3a using 143 female (instead of male) participants.