New research provides evidence that women consistently rate their own performance lower than men do. Employers need to do more to tackle this damaging trend, says Geoff Trickey.

Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister and her promotion of more women to the Cabinet have sparked fresh discussions about women in leadership positions. With Nicola Sturgeon at the helm of the SNP, Angela Merkel’s strong influence in Europe and Hilary Clinton’s campaign to become US president, we are in an unprecedented time of women in high-profile political roles.

Look at the workplace, however, and female representation at the top remains startlingly low. There are just six female CEOs in the FTSE 100 and only a quarter of board members in the UK’s leading companies are women.

The pervasive trend of gender imbalance at the upper levels of organisations raises significant questions about what is going on beneath the surface. To delve into gender differences in the workplace, we analysed the psychometric test results of more than 4,000 employees involved in 360-degree appraisals. We found some illuminating differences between the way men and women rate their own performance compared to how their peers rate them – something businesses should be aware of when assessing and developing their staff.

Based on more than 30,000 performance ratings by individuals, peers, managers and subordinates, the research shows that women underrate their work performance on as many as 19 of the 24 competencies examined. These ranged from ‘decision making’ and ‘problem solving’ to ‘strategic awareness’ and ‘team orientation’. The largest difference was for ‘developing others’, where 36 per cent more women than men underrated themselves relative to their peers.

Arguably, underrating self-performance in certain areas can be constructive. Underestimating the ability to develop others, for instance, acknowledges the complexity of the task and can encourage greater effort; a more cavalier approach might ultimately be detrimental to those being managed. Yet the tendency for more women to underrate their performance extends across both people issues and more task-orientated skills and behaviours. On the ‘analytical’ competency, for example, 19 per cent more women than men underrated their performance.

The results also suggest a double-whammy effect: while more women tend to underestimate their abilities, men tend to overrate their own performance relative to the ratings of their peers. Interestingly, this disparity in self-ratings between the genders was reversed for three competencies, with more men than women underrating themselves on ‘attention to detail’, ‘information management’ and ‘project management’.

The importance of these findings is reinforced by a body of personality research suggesting that people who overestimate their abilities are more likely to gain senior positions. This is probably because they tend to put themselves forward for promotion and achieve recognition. Those who overrate themselves relative to their peers may also be at an advantage since they are likely to be more resilient to criticism and more impervious to other people’s opinions. So what practical steps can organisations take to ensure that employees’ contributions are fairly recognised, whether male or female?

The first challenge is to recognise the importance of clarifying how performance is defined. In many roles there are no truly objective performance indices, so opinion inevitably becomes the currency of staff appraisals. The problem is that language is inherently ambiguous. The term ‘conscientiousness’ provides a good illustration; it is one of the most favoured employee characteristics, but according to the thesaurus there are 150 words with similar or overlapping meanings. It seems everyone sees something positive in ‘conscientiousness’ – but which nuance do they have in mind?

The second challenge is to consider rater bias. Assessing employees based on multiple views through 360-degree appraisals reduces the influence of unconscious bias that affects any individual opinion – including an employee’s self-assessment. When staff work autonomously and multiple ratings are not available, managers have to consider self-ratings alongside hard performance measures or objective testing procedures. Uncertainty and ambiguity are an obvious breeding ground for bias and prejudiced opinions, so it is important to increase the objectivity of any appraisal process, especially where there are doubts.

It is clear that more needs to be done to address the gender imbalance at the top of organisations. Our findings that women often underrate their capabilities may, at face value, point to unfulfilled potential that will be costly to both employees and employers. Staff selection and appraisal processes that are well-defined and cut through rater biases provide an opportunity to clearly and objectively consider employee performance and potential. These are critical procedures that warrant care, vigilance and continuous improvement in the light of experience and research.

Geoff Trickey is a chartered psychologist and managing director of Psychological Consultancy

Article first published in People Management, August 2016