Gender Disparities in Upper Management

Women enter management at similar rates to men, yet their career trajectories quickly diverge. While men often climb the corporate ladder to very senior-level management positions, women tend to plateau in middle-management jobs.

We can all agree that such gender disparities are at least partially due to societal and/or organizational inequities or biases.

However, a more controversial topic is whether women are contributing to this gender disparity themselves. That is, do women hold perceptions or engage in behaviors that directly reduce their chances of career advancement?

In a recent study conducted by researchers at CCL, the University of Houston, and the University of New Mexico, we sought to answer this question by comparing men and women on their levels of self-awareness – that is, the degree to which one’s self-perception is similar to the way others perceive them. Self-awareness also refers to one’s ability to anticipate the views of others.

Our study had several key takeaways:

  • Men and women leaders, on average, viewed themselves as equally effective in their leadership roles.
  • Men and women were evaluated by their bosses as being equally effective leaders.


  • Women’s estimated, or predicted, boss ratings of their leadership were lower than men’s estimated boss ratings. In other words, women anticipated more harsh evaluations from their bosses as compared to men.
  • Women’s estimated boss ratings of their leadership were lower than their bosses’ actual ratings of their leadership. That is, women’s bosses actually had more favorable views of their leadership than women anticipated.
  • Women’s self-ratings of their own leadership were higher than their estimated boss ratings of their leadership. Put slightly differently, women’s self-perceptions were more favorable than the perceptions that they anticipated that their bosses would hold of them.

In sum, women in our study were not as accurate in anticipating the views of their bosses as compared to men. Thus, women appear to be lower than men on this particular component of self-awareness.

Women and men were equally qualified to be leaders, but women tended to believe that their bosses would evaluate them more harshly than was actually the case.

While there may be many reasons for why women under-predicted their bosses’ ratings of their leadership, women in our study reported that this under-prediction may be due to a variety of issues, including but limited to:

  • Women may have lower self-confidence. [i]
  • Women may not receive as much feedback from their bosses, as compared to men. [i]
  • Learned gender roles (“many women have been taught to believe that they are not male equals when this is not the case.”) [i]
  • Women have a tendency to be more humble. [i]

The consequences of having lower self-awareness?

Women who under-predict their boss’s rating have incorrect perceptions, underestimating their value to their boss, their work group, and potentially their organization.

Our research suggests that this could, in turn, lead women to be less assertive and confident at work, as well as being less likely to pursue promotions, pay raises, and other critical opportunities that may be limiting their career advancement.

There may be no quick fix here, but a simple technique that women can use is to proactively seek regular feedback from a boss or superior, rather than waiting until an annual performance review.

When requesting feedback, women may want to request that their bosses provide actionable feedback in the context of 3 things, known as “SBI”:

  • The Situation in which the behavior occurred,
  • The specific, observable Behavior(s) seen, and
  • The Impact of this behavior had on others.

In sum, women may find that underestimating their value to their bosses and/or organizations may have negative effects on their careers.

Proactively seeking an opinion from a boss or a trusted superior can help women more accurately assess their value to their work groups or organizations.

i The content of this post is based upon the following publication: Sturm, R. E., Taylor, S. N., Atwater, L. E., & Braddy, P. W. (in press). Leader self-awareness: An examination and implications of women’s under-prediction. Journal of Organizational Behavior.

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