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Women are much more likely to downplay their achievements in the workplace, according to science

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Lauren Geall
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Women downplay achievements in the workplace compared to male colleagues

A new study has revealed the disparity between the way men and women report their performance at work.

If you find it hard to accept compliments, you’re definitely not alone. Whether it’s a casual “good work” or praise handed out in front of our colleagues, many of us struggle to find a way to respond to people praising us – and will often grimace under the pressure of how to react.

Research has shown that this is a phenomenon that women struggle with in particular, especially when it comes to responding to people’s praise. There’s essentially two options: deny the compliment and underplay all of your hard work, or say “I know” and be seen  as over-the-top and too confident (words that can be seen as praise for men, but as insults for women).

And this fear of seeming too “full of ourselves” or “arrogant” has now influenced the way we talk about our own achievements in the workplace, including our potential employers, according to a new study by a group of researchers from Harvard Business School and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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The study asked a group of 900 participants to take a 20-question test from the US Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, which is used to determine who is qualified to enter the US Armed Forces. Having taken the test, the participants were then asked to estimate how many answers they believed they had answered correctly, and rate themselves on a scale from 0 to 100 for how they would score their overall performance. On average, women reported their performance as being 15 points lower (46 out of 100) than the average man (who scored himself a 61 out of 100) – despite the fact that the men and women performed equally as well on the test.

The women taking part in the test were also more likely to rate themselves lower than the men regardless of whether or not a potential employer would see the test results or self-assessment. 

Women underestimating achievements in the workplace
Women are much more likely to underestimate their achievements than their male colleagues.

While this research may seem self-evident – as we’ve already established, women are simply less likely to accept compliments compared to their male counterparts – it’s still a damning reminder of how many of us continue to underestimate our performances in the workplace: a fact that undoubtedly has real world consequences.

For example, we’re already painfully aware about the gender balance of female directors and CEOs at the top of the UK’s biggest businesses. The latest research from Cranfield University shows that women only make up 33% of directors on FTSE 100 boards, and while that’s a 3% increase on 2018, it’s evident that more needs to be done to ensure women are putting themselves forward for the promotions – and praise – they deserve.

Because by underestimating our achievements – and choosing to underplay them in the workplace – we’re actively putting ourselves at a disadvantage when it comes to getting pay rises, promotions and recognition for our hard work. 

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And even once we’ve secured those promotions, women are still struggling to accept their achievements. 70% of us will struggle with imposter syndrome at some point in our lives, aka the feeling that we don’t belong or don’t have the skills to “deserve” our job.

So next time someone asks you how you feel you’re doing at work, make sure you own your achievements – your male counterparts have been doing it for years.

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Lauren Geall

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