‘Prove It Again’ Bias Shows Women Not Yet Treated as Equals

male and female symbols with an equal sign between them
Stephanie Schwenn Sebring Photo
Contributing Writer
Fab Prose & Professional Writing

9 minutes

Want to help female leaders reach their full potential? Understand gender bias and root it out of your organizational culture and performance evaluation system.

It’s celebrated in the credit union industry that men and women are almost equally represented in CEO positions. But dig a little deeper, and the statistics show that many fewer women than men are CEOs at credit unions with $75 million or more in assets.

Interestingly, the 2019 State of the Workforce Report: Pay, Promotions and Retention finds a parallel pattern at companies of at least 50 employees it studied across all industries—women are promoted earlier than men, but their careers stall after the third level of management. Also, this study found women earn 79% of what men earn.

This situation reflects bias—conscious or unconscious—and the likelihood that women are facing challenges in living up to their full professional potential. In today’s world, gender bias is only sometimes identified and rarely successfully removed from cultures and performance evaluation systems.

This article defines some key kinds of bias that get in the way of treating women as equals and suggests ways you can positively and effectively move the needle toward a more equitable future.

Bias as Foundation 

First let’s examine several kinds of bias that can impact gender equality.

In their 2018 book, What Works for Women at Work, University of California law professor Joan C. Williams and her daughter, Rachel Dempsey, identified gender biases that can negatively impact the ability of professional women to develop to their fullest potential. These include “prove it again!,” the “tightrope” and the “maternal wall.”  

“Prove it again!” bias, according to a 2015 article by Williams in Harvard Business Review, is the idea that “in jobs historically held by men, men are presumed to be competent, while women often have to prove their competence over and over again. Thus, men but not women may be given the benefit of the doubt. In addition, women’s mistakes may be remembered forever, while men’s are soon forgotten.

“One of the most common examples of ‘prove it again!’ is the double standard that men are judged on their potential, while women are judged strictly on what they already have accomplished,” she writes. 

“Women also may get polarized evaluations from students or peers: Women who are superstars get high evaluations while women whose work is merely excellent tend to get sharply lower evaluations than similarly situated men.”

Sarah Gibson, President at Accent Learning and Consulting
Sarah Gibson
Accent Learning and Consulting
There’s work to be done, because women in management remain a minority voice.

In “tightrope” bias, the same article explains, “women need to behave in masculine ways to be seen as competent—but they are expected to be feminine. So, women find themselves walking a tightrope between being seen as too feminine to be competent and too masculine to be likable.”

The third of Williams and Dempsey’s biases is the “maternal wall”—the one that professional women run into when they have children. 

“Their commitment and competence are questioned, and opportunities start drying up,” Williams writes in the Harvard Business Review article. “Women felt they were competing with men who had stay-at-home wives and that colleagues often assumed that they would lose their drive after they had children.”

Everyone uses mental shortcuts to simplify the world around us, Williams explains in her video series about these biases. “Gender stereotypes are one of these mental shortcuts, and they often lead us to make biased assumptions that disadvantage women at work.” 

A bias that men are better leaders also can make it more difficult for women to be hired, developed and promoted equally with their male counterparts.

“There’s work to be done because women in management remain a minority voice,” says Sarah Gibson, president of Accent Learning and Consulting, Stoughton, Wisconsin. 

She cites another Harvard Business Review article  that “reiterates this, highlighting that women in leadership are outnumbered by men, even less competent men, because there is an unconscious bias that men make better leaders than women.”

Male Standards, Applied to Women

It’s not surprising that in an environment that has been dominated by men, the prevailing performance criteria best measure areas that men value most and in which they excel. Gibson thinks this puts women in a double bind.

First, women often manage tasks through relationships, giving credit to the full team, while men may be more likely to focus on the task and take credit for the full team’s work.  Secondly, women are often viewed negatively when they talk about accomplishments, whereas men are viewed positively for discussing their accomplishments. If women aren’t recognized for getting the task done through relationships and women aren’t supposed to talk about what they’ve accomplished and they give credit to the team over their individual role, women’s performance assessments will be skewed less favorably than men’s reviews. 

In all, if performance reviews focus only on giving credit to the person who claims credit for completing the task, women are likely to receive less favorable reviews. “We should be adding components to our evaluations where we ask how women accomplished the task so we see the full extent of their role in the task completion,” Gibson says.

Research supports this assumption. A behavioral economist and chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys, Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio reports in this article that women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback.   

For example, Deedee Myers, Ph.D., CEO of CUES Supplier member and strategic partner DDJ Myers Ltd., Phoenix, observes that women are often characterized as natural consensus-builders, instead of as declarative (or assertive) in meetings. 

“Additionally, a woman might be assessed on how she presents herself in relationships based on her physical presence. Attributes of presence include length, width and depth of stature and posture. It can also be in her overall sense of agency; for example, if she stands with dignity and to her true height with a solid sense of self and is well connected to herself and others,” explains Myers. “If she is hesitant or introverted, she might draw her shoulders in and appear non-engaged. She very well could be engaged, in her own way, yet others might assess that she is not. This drawing in of the shoulders might produce an opinion such as, ‘Diane lacks confidence in team meetings.’ Conversely, feedback on a hesitant or introverted male counterpart might be in terms of ‘Jack needs to speak up more.’”
The difference? 

The “confidence” statement is a subjective assessment, while the “speak up more” statement is tangible and measurable—and something concrete can be measured and improved upon for advancement potential, says Myers.  

Deedee Myers
Deedee Myers, Ph.D.
DDJ Myers Ltd.
When a board evaluates the CEO, it should seek both objective and subjective responses; the objective response can be a yes or no answer; the additional subjective text statement can help ground the assessment and provide further support.

Rooting Out the Problem

So how can an organization address biases and male-framework evaluation standards that are making it more difficult for women to reach their full potential?

Through awareness, and by setting fair expectations throughout the organization and its performance management processes, advises Brandi Stankovic, Ed.D., chief strategy officer for CU Solutions Group, Livonia, Michigan.
As credit union leaders, she says, “we need the ability to give open-ended feedback, but we must also be aware of the opportunity for inequities to surface. Ongoing and regular coaching can help leaders overcome any unconscious bias, whether based on recent events or more deep-rooted gender perspectives.”

The way a performance appraisal process is structured is also key in her view.

“For example,” Stankovic says, “the purpose of the evaluation is to set expectations, develop a plan for success and groom the employee to move to the next level. The process should ensure all leaders—men and women, young and old, of all affinity groups—receive constructive, substantiated and ongoing feedback.”

But setting fair standards can be tricky.

“Bias could live within subjective portions of the performance review (i.e., ratings on personality, attitude, appearance and demeanor) or how an organization handles its overall performance management, which can be a lack of awareness, communication or education regarding gender bias,” Stankovic says. “Astute performance management strategies will foster an environment where leaders are comfortable asking questions, soliciting feedback for development and suggestions on how to improve.”

Myers notes that the structure of the performance review can either enhance objectivity or create a setting for ambiguity and subjectivity. 

“We recommend using a blended structure for the review,” she says. “For instance, when a board evaluates the CEO, it should seek both objective and subjective responses; the objective response can be a yes or no answer; the additional subjective text statement can help ground the assessment and provide further support.”

Myers has found in her research that males receive more constructive feedback while feedback given to a woman’s is often contextualized in how hard she works. 

Myers says gender-neutral language is also important to setting up a fair CEO performance evaluation system. This can arise when boards design their own CEO evaluation forms (even with positive intent) and include gender-oriented language such as “he” or “she” versus CEO. 

Myers also underscores the need to not only encourage, but also insist upon diversity and inclusivity training. “There are embedded biases that are not obvious until pointed out.”  

Even harder to confront are systemic biases that have been embedded for generations, she notes. Shifting away from these biases requires a deep-seated organizational commitment to diversity and inclusivity training as well as a commitment to daily practices to self-assess processes and revise language. 

Stankovic offers these additional steps for removing barriers to women reaching their full professional potential:

  • Foster a respectful and diverse environment, and make sure there is female representation on the board and executive team.
  • Engage in crucial conversations with the board and executives, dedicate time and remove any taboo about engaging in conversations. 
  • Boost efforts to groom women for leadership roles by providing a mentor or coach to help them build connections and navigate workplace politics. 
  • Create action items on how to improve or continue to develop and hold people accountable. 
  • Align strategic goals with leadership coaching to help everyone feel like they are part of the progress; emphasize ongoing coaching and goal-setting.
  • Give people a safe place to ask questions, learn and share. 
  • Educate stakeholders by engaging subject matter experts or holding organization-wide forums; consider a diversity and inclusion training program, so all employees feel secure and valued.
  • Invest time and energy to emotional intelligence for everyone, male or female. Be open to the expression of emotion and realize that emotion is not weakness. 
  • Set goals, and track and reward progress.

In all, a key way to open the door to female professionals developing fully is to restructure the review process so that it is more objective and applies expectations consistently, regardless of gender, says Stankovic. “Use these same objective standards across the organization. Also strive for a culture of inclusiveness, with deliberate and transparent communication at all levels; make gender bias awareness an ongoing strategic initiative.”cues icon

Stephanie Schwenn Sebring established and managed the marketing departments for three credit unions and served in mentorship roles before launching her business. As owner of Fab Prose & Professional Writing, she assists credit unions, industry suppliers, and any company wanting great content and a clear brand voice. Follow her on Twitter @fabprose.

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