Women Aren’t Promoted Because Managers Underestimate Their Potential

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2021-09-24 17:00:05

Why are fewer women promoted to senior positions than men? In a study of evaluation and promotion data from a large retail chain, Prof. Kelly Shue and her co-authors found that women got higher performance ratings than men but were consistently—and incorrectly—judged as having less leadership potential.

At the large North American retail chain that was the subject of Professor Kelly Shue’s new research, more than half of entry-level workers—56%—are women. But at each rung up the ladder, there are fewer and fewer women: women are 48% of department managers, 35% of store managers, and 14% of district managers—the glass ceiling at work. Why?

The study, co-authored with Alan Benson of the University of Minnesota and Danielle Li of MIT and based on assessment and promotion records for nearly 30,000 workers, finds that women are 14% less likely to be promoted at the company in each year, and that a major factor preventing women from being promoted is that they are consistently judged as having lower leadership potential than men. In a two-part annual assessment, according to the records, women’s performance at the company is rated higher than men’s, on average. But their potential is rated lower—a pattern than continues even when women exceed those expectations.

At the company in the study, managers use a “nine-box” grid—a commonly used tool at large organizations—to evaluate their employees, giving them a low, medium, or high score on their performance over the prior year and a low, medium, or high score on their potential for growth and development. The employees with high scores for both performance and potential—those in the upper right quadrant of the grid—are most likely to be promoted.

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