Go Ahead – Give Yourself Credit

iStock_000012546879XSmallBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

How often do you truly take credit for your accomplishments on big projects? According to a new article published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, for women working in male-dominated environments, the answer might be “not often enough.”

The research, carried out by Michelle C. Haynes, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Madeline E. Heilman, New York University, suggests that when paired with male colleagues, women tend to give credit for success to men on the team. The reason, they suggest, is because women expect to perform worse than men on stereotypically male tasks (like making management decisions), and when the team generates success, they figure it must be because the work was carried by their male peers. Haynes and Heilman explain:

“Most high status, high power, professional positions are thought to require agentic characteristics for success, characteristics that are congruent with the male stereotype but incongruent with the female stereotype. As a result of this perceived “lack of fit,” men are generally expected to perform successfully in these types of roles; women are expected to be less likely to do so.”

The team performed a similar study in 2005, and this study corroborated those results and went further. The two determined that this wasn’t simply a case of women being “modest” and giving credit to any team-mate, rather than draw attention to themselves. After all, in another test, when women were paired with female colleagues, they didn’t give their partner credit for the team’s success.

It was only when they were working with men that women assumed success was their team-mate’s doing. Given that the professional workforce is dominated by men, especially higher tiers of the corporate ladder, that amounts to a lot of credit handed over to men, when they didn’t necessarily deserve it. It also suggests that there a lot of women not taking credit for excellent work, performance that could lead to bigger responsibilities, promotions, and salaries.

Next time you attribute the success of a project to someone else’s prowess, it is perhaps literally worth your while to stop and think about where that success really came from. Go ahead. Give yourself credit.

The Research

The researchers performed several tests to get to the root of why women were giving credit to men. They told individuals they were going to be paired up with another person in a remote location on a task and then their work would be evaluated as a team. In reality, there was no other person. Participants received a dossier about their “partner” which indicated their gender. They they were given a work scenario – making management decisions as a supervisor in an investment company, where colleagues of the same position were 86 percent male.

Each “team’s” performance was evaluated positively, and women who were paired with men generally attributed success to their partner (even though there really was no partner). If they were paired with women, they did no indicate that success was the result of their partner’s work. Not only does this show that stereotypical assumptions about work and gender are held by both women and men, it shows that women tend to believe that men are better than them at stereotypically male tasks.

But when women in the study were told they scored positively on a pre-test on management skills, they tended to keep credit for themselves rather than give it up to their supposed male partners. When participants were evaluated individually, they did not give up credit to someone else. That shows that team-based ambiguity leads women to give up credit for success.

Institutions and Managers

This study is not only about women not taking the credit they deserve. It’s important to consider the context and motivation that women have for giving up credit. For example, society dictates a fine line for women at work – push too hard for yourself and there’s a chance you’ll get labeled “difficult.” And the ugly assumption that women don’t perform as well as men on stereotypically male tasks can be a self fulfilling prophesy that shows up on subjective performance reviews undeservedly. After all, both women and men judged women’s performance more harshly than males’.

This study shows that it is imperative that companies, and particularly managers, take a careful look at how they are evaluating women’s performance on their teams. Setting clear expectations for success and stating up-front how success will be measured for each individual on a team is imperative for gender fairness. That accountability and transparency will go a long way in building a pipeline of high performing women to the top.

It will also help women acknowledge that – yes – they do deserve personal credit for their team’s success. Acknowledging that can help us take more of those big career risks that propel us forward.