The impact of perceptions and stereotypes on women’s performance

A new study from King’s College suggests that stereotypes around women’s ability to play chess may explain why they underperform when competing against men. Move away from the world of chess to the world of work and there is plenty of research which shows the impact of how perceptions might impact a woman’s performance.

For example, a study published in the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that women consistently rated their performance lower than men. This was still the case when the average performance ratings were provided.

The authors suggest that because so much career progress relies on self-promotion, this tendency by women to under-rate their performance may account for the continued gap in the employment market, particularly for leadership roles.

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This is reiterated in another study, involving more than 100,000 people, which consistently found that women tended to underestimate their leadership skills compared with men.

From an HR perspective, and the all-important performance appraisal process, a study by Lily Jampol and Vivan Zayas suggests that women are more likely to be given inaccurate performance feedback than their male peers.

They found that women who were underperforming at work tended to be given kinder albeit less honest feedback compared with men who were equally underperforming. While the motivation behind this was to protect relationships and avoid upsetting the woman nonetheless there is the potential for long-term damage to women’s careers.

Then, of course, there is the double-bind of how to behave as a female leader and how others may subsequently view our competence and performance. For example, a 2018 study suggests that communal leadership traits – such as tolerance and cooperation – are seen as desirable but not essential.

The men and women who participated in the study believed that stereotypically masculine traits – such as assertiveness – were needed to be a successful leader.

However, as a review by Naomi Ellemers found, women are more likely to be penalised for displaying traits such as assertiveness and confidence and not conforming to societal norms. But – and here’s the double-bind – women are also more likely to be viewed as an ineffective leader if they instead display stereotypically feminine traits such as compassion and cooperation.

What can we do to help women in the workplace?

The psychologist, Albert Bandura, has spent a lifetime studying what psychologists refer to as ‘self-efficacy’. Self-efficacy is the belief a person has in their skills and capabilities to achieve a specific goal.

Our level of self-efficacy can affect our confidence, our performance and our career success. Here are four tactics that can help improve self-belief:

  1. Listing achievements. There is something powerful about noting down what we have achieved. Examples of this include regularly updating CVs and keeping a positive feedback file. These provide a foundation that tells us, 'You’ve achieved difficult things before. There’s no reason you can’t again'.
  2. Role models. Seeing other women who have achieved success tells us, 'If they can do it, I can do it too'. Mentoring and being part of a network can help here.
  3. Visualisation. There’s a reason Olympic athletes use this technique. It’s a way to rewire the brain to think in a certain way. Visualising, in detail, performing in a way that achieves a successful outcome provides specific cues to act on.
  4. Coaching. Research by Kate Oldridge suggests that coaching increases the legitimacy of women in senior leadership roles by helping senior women to be seen as leaders, supporting their leadership identity development and improving their confidence and impact.

By Hayley Lewis, founder of HALO Psychology, and ranked 13 on the HR Most Influential Thinkers in 2022