For too many women, the hardest part of being successful might be taking credit for the work that they do, especially when they work in groups.
In a study recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers Michelle C. Haynes and Madeline E. Heilman conducted a series of studies that revealed women were unlikely to take credit for their role in group work in a mixed-gender setting unless their roles were explicitly clear to outsiders. When women worked only with other women, they found, this problem of not taking credit disappears.
"Women gave more credit to their male teammates and took less credit themselves unless their role in bringing about the performance outcome was irrefutably clear or they were given explicit information about their likely task competence," the study finds. "However, women did not credit themselves less when their teammate was female."
Haynes says she was inspired to conduct this research when she encountered the phenomenon in her own life. "It actually came about where I had gotten an email, some feedback about a symposium that we had submitted for, and that was glowing, fantastic feedback," she says. "I was sitting, reading the email, and as I was reading it, it was like, 'Wow, those other papers must have been so wonderful for us to get this glowing praise.' And then I sort of had this light-bulb moment of, 'Oh my goodness, I do this too.'"
The series of studies looked at 34 men and 36 women who were told to complete a task that would be completed independently but would be judged on the group performance of a partner they were "paired" with. In the first study, each individual task was identical. Each participant was paired with a fictional teammate of the opposite sex he or she believed to be real. Participants were then given 20 minutes to complete a task and a job description for the "male-sex typed" role, which indicated 89 percent of people filling that role were men. Individuals then received feedback, half of which was presented as "individual" feedback and half of which was presented as "group" feedback, that said the group had earned an "excellent" rating. Participants were then given a questionnaire to fill out that inquired about the individual performance, the partner's performance, and the individual's contribution to success. The women who were given group performance indicated their partner had a great contribution to success.
In the second study, half of participants ran the same study, but this time half were told that the task each person was asked to complete was different from his or her "partner," so it was clear whose work was whose. In this scenario, women rated their individual contributions much closer to that of their male "partners."
In the third version of the study, the researchers varied the sex of the fictional partner. Women paired with a "female partner" actually gave themselves higher ratings than their teammates.
In the fourth scenario, they tried to prime participants' expectations by giving them a "pretest" for the task, to which half received positive feedback and half didn't receive any feedback. In this version, women who received no feedback before starting the task chose their teammate as the better performer. Those who received positive feedback were much more likely to take credit for their work, something the researchers said "undercut" the participants' negative expectations.
While Haynes' research reveals that women are less prone to deflecting credit when they work with other women, the solution probably isn't just to encourage people to work in gender-segregated groups.
"I'm not sure that just siphoning people off by gender works," Haynes said. "And in the long term, it might reinforce the nature of the process."
This difficult choice plays out in the real world. Emily Williamson is a former health care professional turned web developer who works with Rails Girls Washington DC. The group hosts regular hacker-style events aimed at teaching women to code in an open-source web framework called Ruby on Rails. She says, "I would say that in general, when I see women in a group, they tend to associate with 'we' more than 'I.' They definitely showcase themselves a lot less."
She talked of the impostor syndrome, the feeling common in high-achieving women in which they feel they're not deserving of the success they encounter.
That's part of how Rails Girls got started, when a group of women looked at the male-dominated developer profession and decided to encourage more women to learn the language. (Williamson points out that, though the mission of the group is to encourage more women to become developers, men are welcome at training sessions.)
Williamson admits it's a struggle she goes through in her own professional work. "I probably fall into the 'we' loop more often than I'd like to," she says. "It's just part of being in at team, part of being perceived as a team player. Particularly with a development, the teams are so small. It can come down to one individual causing problems in the team."
Haynes says she heard similar stories after her research was published. "Just in the short time this paper has been out I have spoken to a number of women who have emailed me or called," she recalls "A number of women ... have said, I've read through your paper, and it rings true."
The answer to how to "fix" this problem is not an easy one. Haynes explained that these are deeply embedded stereotypes, and telling women they don't do enough to take credit—the advice to "act more like a man"—isn't all that practical when many women may not even be aware of what they're doing in the first place. Instead, it helps for companies and organizations to make the work of the individuals in groups clearer and more accountable. This may run counter to the "work together" mentality of group work, but it is a clear way to help women seize on success by taking credit for their work.