A new performance review process could fight cultural bias against women at work

American society is loath to acknowledge women as experts.
American society is loath to acknowledge women as experts.
Image: Reuters/Matthew Stock
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

A month or so ago, a friend of mine—a postdoctoral fellow at my university—invited me out for lunch, along with a colleague I’d never met. At lunch, my friend introduced me: “Aliya is a postdoc here. She studies unemployment with a focus on gender, so she can tell you about that if you have any questions.”

His colleague was a PhD student in political science, who had an amateur interest in gender debates. Squinting from behind his glasses, he took a cursory look at me and raised his eyebrows skeptically. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m pretty up-to-date with stuff on gender, I know quite a lot.”

I was surprised at the casual arrogance with which he dismissed my expertise—in an area in which I’m literally credentialed—and confidently proclaimed his own. But I shouldn’t have been.

In 2017, we still live in a society that’s loath to acknowledge women as experts. A 2014 study published at Administrative Science Quarterly showed that male scientists tended to rate fellow men’s expertise higher than women counterparts’, even when women had objectively higher levels of educational and technical expertise. And a recent study of economists found that when women co-author papers with men, the men receive the bulk of the credit.

 At the same time, women are often hesitant to claim expertise for themselves. One study (pdf) found that in disciplines that are culturally assumed to be innate to men, such as mathematics, male high school students rated their competency as higher than objectively capable female students.

Even women who are certified experts are often hesitant about claiming their authority. In academia, you advance by demonstrating your expertise—typically by publishing in peer-reviewed journals and amassing citations in other papers. Men academics, however, are far more likely than women to cite their own work.

The issue isn’t that women are just being humble. They shy away from promoting themselves because they face a real double bind in the workplace. Research shows that women are penalized for appearing competitive, ambitious and competent, while men are rewarded for it.

But there are ways to work toward changing our cultural biases against women’s expertise. Researchers at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, who study the devaluation of women’s expertise in the workplace, explain that part of the problem lies with the constantly shifting goalposts that women have to reach in order to be deemed authorities in their field.

One way to counter this problem is for individual companies to develop a consistent metric and objective process for calibrating performance reviews of their workers. For example, if being “innovative” is seen as a quality necessary to receive a promotion at a company, then the company needs to specify what “innovative” means rather than leaving the definition vague. This can also help reduce the introduction of constantly evolving and new criteria. If a man is deemed “innovative” because he identified a new way of expanding some aspect of the business, then the criteria for a woman should be the same.

Although the issue is fundamentally a systemic problem, individual women can also exercise some control over how they are perceived. One option is to strategically use body language to mindfully exude power and competence in select situations. Deborah Gruenfeld, a professor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, explains that “playing high”—characterized by a relaxed and expansive stance, where you take up maximum space and let your gestures drift into others’ spaces—is one way to do this. You can also experiment with holding your head straight, making eye contact with the person you are speaking with, and interrupting—even if you don’t know exactly what you’re going to say. This works best in situations where you are trying to reinforce your status, or in situations of competition where status is up for grabs.

And there is always the option for women to speak up when they sense that a colleague is underestimating them. The next time I encounter someone who tries to dismiss my experience, I plan to assert my expertise—without apology or equivocation.