Why men are better at self-promotion than women

Research shows women underrate their performance even when they have an objective measure of how well they've done.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 18 Feb 2020

There’s an art to self-promotion. 

Too much and you’re a braggart, too little and you’ll spend an unpleasantly large proportion of your life wondering why less competent people keep getting promoted above you. 

Folk wisdom has long had it that men are better at self-promotion than women, which has contributed to disparities in pay and the gender imbalance in senior positions. 

A recently revised study, published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, provides tangible evidence for that argument.

Harvard Business School’s Christine Exley and Wharton’s Judd Kessler wanted to understand how individuals described their own performance in self assessments

They found that women tended to describe their performance in tests lower than men did, despite the fact that both groups had the same average test scores. The spread was significant - women on average gave themselves 46 out of 100, while men scored themselves 61. 

At first glance this may not seem to be anything new. There are numerous studies suggesting gender-based differences in confidence levels when individuals are asked to score themselves. However, what is surprising here is the fact that the women in the study still underscored themselves (or indeed, men overscored themselves) despite being aware how they had actually performed.

They were also aware that the employer would use their self-assessment scores when deciding whether to employ them and when assessing pay-levels. 

Rather than attributing an unwillingness to self-promote to confidence levels - the “carefully controlled” methodology enabled the researchers to “rule out many possible drivers of gender differences in performance”. Exley believes it’s the consequence of “societal norms”.

“If women are more averse to engaging in self-promotion, perhaps because of societal pressures or expectations, a gender gap in self-promotion may follow even when it is against their financial interests,” Exley tells the Harvard Gazette

The research suggests that simply telling women how well they’ve performed won’t be enough to encourage them to self-promote, although adopting more objective performance metrics in employee assessment could be one potential solution. 

We will be showcasing the country’s remarkable, talented, visionary and ground-breaking businesswomen of all ages, at every level and across all sectors, and those companies and colleagues that are helping them to succeed. Enter the Inspiring Women in Business Awards here.

Image credit: Metronome / Contributor via Getty images

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