Men Are Judged Based on Their Potential; Women Are Judged Based on Their Past Performance

"By not fully recognizing leadership potential in female candidates, organizations are inhibiting the prospects of half of their talent," write the researchers behind a new study.
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Researchers suggest that employers looking to hire the best people would benefit from training that raised their awareness of the bias to judge women based on past performance but men on potential.

Democrats generally seem happy with their large field of potential presidential candidates, but some grumblings have been heard alleging that the women in the race are being held to a higher standard. While female Senators Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris discuss their long and impressive resumes, younger males like South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Congressman Beto O'Rourke emphasize the personal qualities that will enable them to do great things.

New research suggests this dynamic is hardly limited to presidential politics. A new study finds that, for managerial positions, male job candidates are largely judged by their potential, while females tend to be evaluated based on their past performance.

This dynamic "may well confer unfair advantages well beyond commercial and business contexts—in education, politics, journalism, [and] the legal system," writes a research team led by psychologist Georgina Randsley de Moura of the University of Kent. "By not fully recognizing leadership potential in female candidates, organizations are inhibiting the prospects of half of their talent."

The study, published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, featured two similarly structured experiments, both conducted online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk.

One featured 199 participants, who were told that a fictitious technology company was looking for a director of financial affairs. They then looked at four resumes. Two of them (one for a man, and one for a woman) highlighted the applicant's past successes, while the other two emphasized his or her potential. These were accompanied by short testimonials, which also focused on either impressive past performance or inherent capabilities.

Participants then noted, using a one-to-nine scale, whether they would hire each candidate, and whether they thought he or she "would be a good appointment." They also predicted how well each would do in their careers.

The researchers discovered a consistent pattern. "When participants ranked male candidates, there was a preference for potential," they write, "whereas leadership potential was overlooked when they ranked female candidates."

"Male candidates that demonstrated higher potential were perceived to have a more impressive resume, and were expected to perform better in the future than male candidates who demonstrated higher performance," the researchers report. The opposite was true for female candidates.

The result of this unconscious bias is that, even when female candidates' past performance matches that of their male competitors, "women would be held to higher standards in the selection process, because their leadership potential would be less likely to be recognized than men's."

"It could be that women are implicitly required to show greater evidence of competence to overcome stereotypically negative performance expectations, particularly in male gender-typed job domains," they add. Like, you know, president of the United States.

The researchers suggest that employers looking to hire the best people would benefit from training that raised their awareness of this bias. Given the important choices we'll soon be making at the ballot box, so would the rest of us.

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