What working women can do when they don’t get credit for collaboration

Do the work, get the props.
Do the work, get the props.
Image: AP Photo/Charles Gorry
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Alicia and Robert had met the deadline: their marketing plan was complete. They’d collaborated well together, outlining their target market, the schedule for rolling out their new product and the various roles and responsibilities that would need to be assigned. Alicia and Robert were pleased. So was their company’s executive committee, who forever after referred to it as “Robert’s Plan.”

While this situation is hypothetical, it illustrates a common problem: Women do not get credit when it is due. In studies I have conducted with psychology professor Michelle C. Haynes, now at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, women who worked collaboratively with men on designing multiyear investment portfolios  were consistently seen as less competent than their male peers. And when their joint project was successful, women were seen as playing a less influential role in its success, while their male counterparts were assumed to have taken on leadership roles.  

This is bad news for working women, since most jobs today involve some measure of collaboration. And when women don’t get their fair share of credit for group work, their career prospects suffer. For example, a 2015 study (pdf) by Heather Sarsons, a PhD candidate in economics at Harvard University, showed that women economists who co-authored papers with men were less likely to receive tenure. Their collaborative work counted less than it did for men. One can only imagine the many undocumented career penalties that women incur because they go unrecognized for valuable contributions.  

The most powerful solutions to this problem depend upon systemic and cultural change. We all need to recognize our biased views of women and work to correct wrongheaded perceptions about what women have to offer in the workplace. But professional women who are getting short-changed right now may also want solutions that are more immediately actionable. To that end, here are a few suggestions about what individual women can do when they find themselves getting the short end of the stick.

First, it’s important to note that women themselves are part of the problem. In study after study, we have found that female as well as male evaluators attribute less credit to women than men for teamwork. Women, along with men, devalue the contributions of other women.

Women also devalue their own contributions. In studies with professor Haynes, we have found that when men and women were assigned to work on a project together, prioritizing and making decisions on a series of managerial tasks, women gave more credit to their male teammates and took less credit for themselves. This happened consistently unless their contributions were impossible to discount—that is, when they received scores on a test that indicated that they were terrific at this specific managerial task.

So what can women do? It might seem obvious to recommend that they opt to work individually rather than in teams whenever possible. But research has shown that women can also be punished for failing to be collaborative.

In her dissertation research, Dr. Julie Chen, a former psychology NYU doctoral student of mine, demonstrated that when women did not involve others in decision-making about the use of organizational resources, evaluators assigned them lower performance ratings than men. Evaluators also recommended that those women receive lower salary increases, fewer promotions, and more limited opportunities for participation on high-profile projects.

However, there are other, admittedly difficult steps that women can take in the effort to get the recognition they deserve. A few options to consider:

It’s easier to point out your contributions to a project if they are discrete and irrefutable. So, if possible, try to take ownership of parts of the project that are contained and have objective performance indicators. For example, in a group presentation, you divide up the tasks and take full responsibility for putting together a two-minute video.

This will make it harder, if not impossible, for your colleagues to dismiss your contributions. You may also want to try choosing work for which you are uniquely qualified compared to other members of the group. If you’re the only person who speaks fluent Spanish or has business contacts in Hong Kong, it will be a lot harder for others (or for you) to fail to acknowledge your hard work.

Make sure your contributions are clear to your male collaborators. Your colleagues are the people who will have firsthand knowledge of your responsibility for the joint outcome, so be sure to get them on board. They may even run interference for you should you encounter dismissive upper management.

Don’t be afraid to self-promote. Women are often reluctant to engage in self-promotion, largely because they accurately fear backlash for doing so, according to a 2010 study by Corinne Moss-Racusin and Laurie Rudman published in Psychology of Women Quarterly. This puts women in a catch-22. If they don’t speak up about their contributions, they’re more likely to be overlooked. If they do tout their achievements, as the study’s authors note, they’re perceived as violating gender norms that hold women should be modest, humble and oriented toward others.

Yet it remains important for women to find a way to bring their objective contributions to the attention of others. Discussing the work you have done on a project and how it informed your team’s final product need not be boastful. It can be factual, data-based and presented in a way that is not confrontational. It’s admittedly risky, but this is not a situation that is going to right itself without action.

Take opportunities to clarify your role—in private, if possible. Most people are unaware of the gender biases that lead them to undervalue women’s contributions. So if a boss or another colleague seems to be giving you short shrift, assume that there’s no bad intent—but do find a private moment to give them more information about your role in the project.

Things can get tricky if credit is being misattributed during a meeting or in another public situation. It could work to stop the action and correct the inaccuracy with good-natured but straightforward commentary, but this tactic could also backfire. (The outcome depends a lot on the nature of your relationship with the perpetrator and with the larger group.) If you think intervening might embarrass your colleague, or be perceived as an attack, hold off for another time and place when you can discuss the issue further. But don’t be afraid to bring it up later on.  

Volunteer to be the spokesperson. Anecdotally, it seems that the person who presents a project to a group tends to get credit automatically. So women may want to counter our cultural tendency to underestimate their contributions them by asking if their male colleagues if they can be the ones to do the talking.

While these steps can help women battle the discrimination they encounter in the workplace, fixing this problem remains the shared responsibility of all men and women. We all want to believe in a world where hard work pays off. But as long as women fail to receive full credit for their contributions, they’ll remain stuck on the sidelines while men reap the benefits of collaborative success.