Gender expectations: Why women are expected to be “pro-social” to get ahead

Women must be confident AND caring to succeed in the workplace, but men only need to display confidence to get ahead, according to new research.

The most popular advice for professional women is to display confidence. Research into gender diversity suggests that women are less self-assured than men, even with just as much talent and ability to excel in leadership. But is this accurate?

Confidence isn’t enough

According to new research, women are gauged on a different scale to men. While men in leadership are considered successful when they display confidence, women are expected to display ‘pro-social’ behavior on top of confidence and assertiveness to get to leadership positions.

This according to a study led by Laura Guillén, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at ESMT Berlin business school.

Working with colleagues from IE Business School and INSEAD, Guillén studied 236 engineers from a multinational software development company, of which 22% were women, and assessed how self-confident each was perceived to be by their supervisors.

The results showed that there was no difference between high performing men and women who were all seen as confident by upper management. However, women were not rewarded equally for their self-confidence.

In order to be rewarded equally, women had to also display ‘pro-social’ behavior, such as showing that they care about their colleagues, and take their interests to heart.

There was no similar expectation for male leaders.

Women expected to play ‘nice’

“There are a number of studies that have shown that when women display behavior consistent with being ambitious, it affects them negatively. In other words, they are not liked,” says Guillén.

“Our research shows that women currently need to show pro-social orientation to counterbalance this negative effect – something men do not need to do to get ahead.”

“People want to work in a friendly environment. They want their workplace to be diverse. But in order to create this environment companies need to think carefully about whether being pro-social is a job requirement and then treat women and men equally accordingly,” she adds.

“Making sure this happens should not be solely women’s responsibility – organizations need to take concrete steps to promote it actively.”

But while women may have to be nicer than men in order to gain influence at work, this very expectation can also prevent them from attaining senior positions. A 2016 study conducted by Lean In and McKinsey & Company found that women who try for a raise or promotion “are 30% more likely than men to receive feedback that they are ‘bossy,’ ‘too aggressive,’ or ‘intimidating.'” Women are more likely to be penalized for displaying the assurance and self-promotion that is often necessary for rising

Women are more likely to be criticized for displaying the assurance and self-promotion that is often necessary for leadership. With research like this shedding light on double standards in the workforce, managers can be better prepared to address issues early on.

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