Average grades and downplaying gender is good for women, 2 new scientific studies say

For years, women were told to go for the best marks and strengthen their confidence in the specific perspectives and approaches they bring to the workplace. Two brand-new studies seem to reverse the assumptions: women are penalised for good grades and they increase much-needed confidence when they downplay gender differences.

The audit study methodology allows researchers to identify the influence of a certain variable, e.g. family names and hence presumed origin, in a given process, e.g. recruiting. A new study now suggests employers place more value on the perceived ‘likability’ of female applicants than on their academic success. Male applicants with high grade point averages were twice as likely to be contacted by employers as women with the same grades and comparable experience and educational background in an experiment submitting 2,106 applications for new graduates.

Particularly strong biases against women in ‘male domains’

Male math majors who excelled in school were called back by employers three times as often as their women counterparts. This shows a particularly strong bias against women who flourish in supposedly male-dominated fields – similar to gender research comparing performance reviews.

The author of the study, Professor Natasha Quadlin, carried out an additional survey of 261 hiring managers which found that while employers value competence and commitment among male applicants, they are prone to gravitate toward female applicants who are perceived as likable – those who did fine, but did not excel, academically. This helps women who are moderate achievers and are often described as sociable and outgoing, but hurts high-achieving women, who are met with more scepticism, the study found.

Downplaying gender differences can help women in male domains

In another setting and with a different approach, researcher found in a total of five studies (N = 1,453) across a variety of samples, that so-called gender-blindness – the belief that gender differences should not be considered – can support workplace confidence of women (rather than emphasising gender differences does). The same approach also led to more risk-taking and negotiation which are both seen to reduce gender disparities. Researchers also found that gender-blindness had no effect on men’s confidence, i.e. a unique positive effect on women. In order to investigate the effects, two professors of Columbia Business School carried out five surveys to test their hypothesis that gender differences undermine (Study 1) and that gender-blindness relates to and increases women’s confidence in the workplace (Studies 2–5).

A multi-step approach to identify influences and relationships

In order to understand why ‘embracing’ vs. ‘downplaying’ gender-differences would affect women’s confidence, the researchers examined the types of gender differences and similarities women were likely to naturally generate. One hundred and sixty-three women were given one of two treatment conditions, either emphasising gender differences or similarities: ‘In the exercise below, please list out 1) differences or 2) similarities between men and women (…)’.

In order to measure confidence, they asked, ‘to what extent these factors undermined their ability to be seen as an effective leader, decreased their influence or compromised their ability to be seen as a powerful woman.’ The following studies, 2 to 5, then focused on gender-blindness as it relates to workplace confidence, confirmed causalities, included demographic variables, drew connections to certain behaviours (risk-taking) and the effect of identification with more agentic qualities. Together these studies demonstrate the potential for gender-blindness to reduce the salience of gender roles in male-dominated environments to increase confidence, action, and agency – all important for eliminating the workplace gender gap.

Overall message: Not as sad as the first impression may suggest

When discussing the results, some experts and journalists wondered if the finding should be interpreted that women need to reduce feminine aspects or even behave more like men typically do. With regard to the specific role of workplace confidence, the study actually suggests that the male connotation can be de-emphasised from concepts such as assertiveness, risk-taking or competitiveness by letting women follow a gender-blind approach. This would make them more likely to recognise their own potential as individual talents (literally regardless of their gender) and reduce the idea that certain strengths are found more often in men or others in women. One detail of the results implies that gender blindness can also help to reduce the over-confidence that some men might have.

At the same time, the former study on “Marks of a Women’s Record” reconfirm that evaluation and appraisal biases continue to exist. Overall, managers and D&I experts need to continue to navigate in a complex field where pitfalls are waiting and it is always easy to go a little too far in the one or other direction. On the other hand, the researches had deliberately limited their analysis to nationals of the U.S.A., pointing to insights that gender dynamics do vary across cultures. Hence, some of the findings would need to be checked in different settings.


The gender blindness and workplace confidence research was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0749597816300784

The grades audit study was published in the April edition of American Sociological Review http://journals.sagepub.com/toc/asra/83/2