I probably do not need to pepper you with the numbers: There is still a daunting gender imbalance in the upper echelons of organizations. Globally, only 24 percent of senior management positions are held by women, and 33 percent of companies still have no women in senior management (Catalyst, 2017). Aside from being a fairness problem, this is also a talent management problem: By not promoting the best women, organizations are systematically saying no to higher performance.
The gender gap is a multifaceted problem with several causes, but one culprit really hits at the heart of talent management: Ratings of future potential. Every organization that makes promotions needs to somehow determine who is most likely to be successful in a more senior role – and unfortunately, as I have stated previously on this blog, this seems to be where gender bias hits. The research evidence is amassing.
Roth et al. (2012) in their meta-analysis found that, despite the fact that women received higher performance ratings, men were consistently rated higher on promotion potential. Perhaps even more strikingly, another meta-study by Joshi et al. (2015) showed that the gender difference in both promotion and benefits was 14 times (!) larger than the gender gap in performance ratings. Lyness and Heilman (2006) on their part showed that higher performance ratings were required of women than of men in order to get a promotion, indicating that women are held to a different standard.
According to new research, the pattern also holds for the flipside of potential: risk for derailment. That is; the probability that an individual will not be able to perform once promoted to a more senior role. Bono et al. (2017) performed an impressive study looking at two massive datasets, made up of tens of thousands of feedback scores for managers. The managers’ social skills had been rated either by their boss or in a 360 fashion. The boss had also rated the person’s derailment risk. To no surprise, there was a clear correlation between low social skills and high ratings of derailment risk. However, women who displayed problematic social behaviors were 17 percent more likely to be seen as potential derailers than male managers displaying the same problems. The pattern was also confirmed in two experiments. This, according to the authors, indicates that female managers – held to the stereotypical standard of women being “nice” – are judged more harshly when assessed for future promotions.
In one way, the above findings are sadly not too surprising, since assessments of both potential and derailment risk qualify as what research calls “ambiguous evaluations” (e.g. Heilman, 2001): The concepts are fuzzy, actual data are scarce, and you are trying to predict something that has not yet happened. And what do humans do when we lack data and structure? We draw on our preconceptions. This opens up for bias and stereotyping to creep in.
In sum, there is now convincing evidence that women are at disadvantage when future potential is assessed, and that this contributes significantly to the gender gap in senior management. By all means, this is a momentous issue for talent management in the years to come. What is to be done? In the next post, I will go into some of the measures that can be taken to counter this dreary phenomenon.