Once again, research and reality confirm an unhappy obstacle on the road to gender parity:

Women have to prove they can succeed in a position before they are promoted to it; while men are often promoted based on their perceived potential.

This potential vs. performance barrier, often the result of unconscious gender bias, is taking a heavy toll on both women and their organizations. According to Caroline Simard, Director of Research at the Clayman Institute such hidden biases lead to a: “cumulative disadvantage over a woman’s career over time, resulting in lower access to key leadership positions and stretch assignments, advancement and pay.” From the corporate perspective, research shows that the absence of diversity at the highest organizational levels negatively impacts both profits and competitive advantage.

Who Has to Change? What Has to Change?
In my role as CEO of WOMEN Unlimited, I see problems and solutions from multiple vantage points across an organization: diversity and talent managers, women participants in our programs, their managers and top executives. As a result, I have come to some conclusions about how to start leveling the performance vs. potential playing field.

Quite simply: All the key players have a role to play in bringing about needed change.
Here are a few examples that can go a long way to achieving a more balanced approach to promoting men and women.

  • Male Managers:
    Management remains predominantly male; and men often have a difficult time providing honest feedback to the women on their teams. Research shows that male managers are less likely to be honest with their female employees, making it difficult for women to understand specifically where they need to improve in order to advance. Additionally, men tend to use different terms in reviews of female subordinates. For example, statistically “aggressive” is a word that rarely shows up in reviewing men, but appears frequently in assessing female performance.
  • Vague Feedback is Holding Women Back by Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard in the Harvard Business Review outlined strategies to equalize the feedback process including: using the same criteria for all employees…tying feedback to business goals and outcomes…equalizing references to technical accomplishments and capabilities.
  • Women Themselves
    I continue to be amazed at how many women believe they need all the competencies for a higher position before they take it on. It is the chicken and egg metaphor gone mad. Men don’t see it that way. They are confident they should be given a promotion based on what they’ve achieved to date and what they believe they have to contribute. Until women move more towards that attitude, we will be hard pressed to make significant progress in closing the performance/potential gap. Additionally, women need to be more active in seeking out all-important honest feedback from their managers.

Women are most successful when they don’t try making these attitudinal shifts alone; rather, when they reach out to mentors, sponsors and their managers for advice and support.

Organizational Culture
In order to achieve promotional parity, organizations need to evolve. Not drastically, but pervasively. Male managers need to become more aware of unconscious bias and how it impacts promoting women. Standards and metrics to equalize performance reviews and encourage honest feedback need to be put in place. Organizations need to take the long view so they aren’t deprived of female talent at their highest levels in the years ahead.

If male managers become more aware of the inequalities in assessing men and women…if women become more willing to risk being promoted…if organizations provide a culture that fosters a policy of conscious inclusion, we will be well on the road to removing the potential vs. performance barrier to inclusiveness.

Dr. Rosina L. Racioppi
President & CEO
WOMEN Unlimited, Inc.