Women Underestimate Work Contributions, But Not Always

Research Shows Effects of Feedback on Self-value in the Workplace

Women working in groups evaluate their contributions based on the colleagues' sexes and the format of feedback according to research by Prof. Michelle Haynes.

Women working in groups evaluate their contributions based on the colleagues' sexes and the format of feedback according to research by Prof. Michelle Haynes.

07/12/2013
By Julia Gavin


When working in mixed-sex groups with unclear roles, women are likely to give more credit to their male co-workers than themselves, according to a recent study coauthored by Asst. Prof. Michelle Haynes, psychology. The study has been picked up by academic and popular outlets, striking a chord with many readers.

“Gender is a topic that ebbs and flows in the headlines. This study dovetailed with the national radar in the wake of 'Lean In,'” Haynes says, referring to Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s recent best-selling book on women in leadership roles and the lack thereof.

The paper, co-authored with Prof. Madeline Heilman of New York University, built on previous work that looked at how other people evaluate men’s and women’s contributions to group work. Their paper was accepted to a conference, and Haynes found herself crediting her fellow researchers while reading the panel’s feedback.

“A light bulb went off and I realized, I do this, too! Even though I live my life studying inequality and workforce issues, I was reluctant to take my share of the credit for our success. Anecdotal evidence is one thing, but empirical is another, so we started researching again,” says Haynes. 

Experiments Support Hypothesis  

Haynes and Heilman designed and conducted four experiments to learn more about how women estimate their contributions in different team settings and receive praise for their group work.

The primary experiment assigned a task to male and female subjects  with a mystery colleague they were told was of the opposite sex. The participants worked separately, and the best of their work would be put together and  graded. Everyone received a "participant background information sheet" with personal details about their colleague, which was actually completed by a separate participant of the opposite sex. The participants acted as a managing supervisor at an investment company to test reactions in a role typically considered male. The job description mentioned that 86 percent of such workers are typically male. 

After completing the task, half of the group heard general team feedback while the others received individual feedback, always positive. Participants rated their partner’s performance, their own, the amount they perceived the success to be their work or their partner’s work, and who performed better.

The research found that women who received group feedback rated themselves less favorably than their male teammates compared to those who received individual praise. Haynes and Heilman say this indicated that women deferred to their partner unless told specifically that they had performed the task well.

The second experiment indicated that all of the work would be split evenly between the partners, meaning that the successful outcome required good work by both the male and female teammate. The women who received group feedback still gave more credit to their male colleagues while those hearing individual results rated their contributions higher. The third study included half of the women being told their partner was female. Only the women told their partner was male undervalued their own contributions. The final study offered pretest feedback to some of the women that their skills would make them successful in the task. The women who did not receive the positive support rated their work lower than their bolstered counterparts.

Haynes says the research indicates that when a team includes both sexes, women are likely to underestimate their contributions, but they do not have the same reaction when working with other women or receiving individual feedback. The ambiguity of group feedback appears to be the sticking point for many.

“If you get an A on a paper, you understand that you did the work and accept the high grade as yours,” says Haynes. “But if it’s a group with colleagues, how do you interpret that? It’s that ambiguity that leads to the underestimation of contribution.”

Only a Piece of the Puzzle

The responses to the research have been numerous and varied, with some outlets saying it’s proof women need more support in work settings and others saying it means women are cheating themselves out of high power positions by not taking credit for achievements. While Haynes says it may play into inequality in the workplace, providing the necessary individual feedback to help women accept and use positive reviews isn’t going to instantly solve the problem.

“This research is just a piece of a more complicated puzzle. Simply taking appropriate credit won’t solve gender inequality in the workplace” says Haynes. “It’s a single feather in the pillow.”

Haynes plans to continue her experimental work, teaching her students to use the multiple methods she employs in her research to find different perspectives. She says there are still many questions to be answered surrounding this research. 

“What if this experiment used a traditionally female sexed job as the task? Would the credit balance shift? We can theorize all we want, but we need data,” says Haynes.

Haynes will continue research on diversity through a recent grant from the Creative Economy Initiatives Fund awarded by the UMass President’s Office. Her research with Robin Toof, co-director of Center for Community Research and Engagement and Psychology Prof. Meg Bond through the Center for Women & Work will look closely at diversity on organizations’ boards of directors. 

The research will consider how cultural and ethnic diversity on boards might lead to more successful organizations and identify best practices for achieving more diversity. 

“The Center for Women and Work is an amazing intellectual home away from home on campus,” says Haynes. “It’s a great group of scholars that cut across disciplinary lines who are always supportive and intellectually challenging.”