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Self-Awareness Isn’t Helping Women Progress at Work. Here’s Why.

Debrah Lee Charatan December 18, 2019

Self-awareness is often touted as a foundational leadership skill for the 21st century. After all, research shows that executives who see themselves clearly are more confident, more creative, make better decisions, build stronger relationships, and communicate more effectively.

The self-aware are also better leaders and receive more promotions. It’s even true that companies with strong financial performance are comprised of employees with higher levels of self-awareness than poorly performing companies.

When it comes to self-awareness, women have a slight advantage over men, which would lead us to jump to the logical conclusion that women are being promoted more often. Except, of course, that’s not true. Women are still underrepresented in senior leadership roles and are still paid less than men.

How do we reconcile the fact that self-awareness isn’t helping women progress at work? New research has identified three reasons why self-awareness can actually hinder the success of many female workers.

Women Believe They are Underestimated in the Workplace

Let’s begin by clarifying a popular theory: women are not less confident than men. It’s been found that the self-confidence gap between girls and boys diminishes significantly by the age of 23. Men and women in leadership positions rate their abilities similarly. The idea that gender inequity in the workplace can be explained away by a woman’s lack of confidence no longer holds water.

But while women strongly believe in their own abilities, they face a related challenge that men do not: many women feel that their colleagues underestimate their output and worth. In fact, a recent study showed that while men and women’s self-ratings of their emotional intelligence do not differ, women are three times more likely than men to believe that their supervisors would rate their abilities lower. In reality, their bosses rated women slightly higher than their male counterparts.

What accounts for this disconnect? Research suggests that ingrained gender roles and persistent stereotypes likely play a role. While women are self-aware in that they understand themselves and the value of their contributions, they’re also aware of unconscious prejudice at play within the workplace and are therefore less likely to correctly perceive how others view them.

While prejudice certainly still exists and cannot be downplayed, it’s also true that many leaders are willing to award credit where it’s due, regardless of gender. When a woman believes that others don’t value her, she’ll inevitably be more cautious about asking for things that she may very well deserve, like promotions and raises. Therefore, women looking to advance quickly should attempt to gain a more accurate picture of their contributions through the eyes of others. This might involve soliciting feedback from supervisors and other colleagues to gain a greater understanding of their strengths and weaknesses as others see them.

Women Do Not Receive Quality Feedback

Although women ask for feedback just as often as men, they’re less likely to receive it. Many managers fear giving honest feedback to women because they’re concerned about having their comments perceived as hurtful. These managers still believe the stereotype that women are more emotional than men, and they choose to avoid difficult conversations that could provoke tears or an irrational outburst. Researchers have coined the phrase “benevolent sexism” to refer to behaviors that shield women from negative feedback.

This is problematic because feedback is essential to a leader’s growth and development. It’s very hard to improve without it. It’s much more likely that a woman will be passed over for promotions and raises when she can’t address the issues that would make her more effective in her role and more valuable to her organization. Whereas men are getting feedback that’s specific and tied directly to business outcomes, women are more likely to receive feedback that’s vague, which only tells a woman that she’s not meeting expectations, but doesn’t give her the specifics to address her shortcomings. It’s simply not actionable. The disparity is devastating, as vague feedback leads to lower performance ratings.

On the other hand, vague positive feedback is just as problematic because, while it tells a woman that she’s doing well, it doesn’t specify why or how, so she’s left in the dark about how, exactly, to continue replicating those actions which are valued. And without detailed, documented achievements to point to, it’s more difficult to make the case for promotions or raises. Likewise, when women can solicit and record specific feedback, it has been shown to eliminate men’s overrepresentation in performance categories. In other words, it helps to neutralize bias.

The best solution for women is to know their audience and solicit concrete performance feedback from colleagues that they feel will be both supportive and honest. And, when feedback isn’t specific enough, women should ask follow-up questions. They can try to quantify successes and failures, the behaviors that have led to both, how often they engage in such behaviors, and the organizational impact of their achievements and shortcomings. Seeking concrete examples and documenting them makes them available for future negotiations.

Women Can Take Negative Feedback to Heart

The three ways people form a picture of who they are include: how they see themselves, how others see them, and the comparisons they make to others. While men most value how they see themselves, women tend to focus more on how others see them. Women are also more likely to amend their view of themselves in the presence of feedback from others. While feedback is essential to leadership, placing a greater importance on others’ evaluations of one’s performance can be dangerous. It not only potentially causes us to depart from our own values, standards, and goals, it can cause us to dwell on our fears and shortcomings. Coupled with the tendency to ruminate on insecurities (which women are more prone to do), this kind of behavior can be fatal to one’s career.

Self-awareness is a comingling of self-perceptions and the perceptions of others, and women need to be careful not to fall into the trap of overriding their own self-images based on others’ opinions. Feedback is important and should be taken seriously, but it should not be taken as gospel. Viewpoints will inevitably vary person-to-person, and it is the synthesis of those varying impressions, paired with one’s own assessments, that form a more complete vision of a leader’s strengths and weaknesses. It is this diverse and informed view that women should analyze to extract actionable insights and form the foundation for their personal performance improvement plans.

Additionally, women can strengthen their own sense of self in the process. We can ask ourselves about our greatest aspirations, our guiding principles, and our values. What work energizes us the most? What career path should we take and are we on the right track? The more we recognize, value, and prioritize our own views, the stronger and more resilient they will become. This strength is perhaps our greatest protection against negative views that threaten to upend our own. It never hurts to prove someone wrong.

Despite the bold claims about the importance of self-awareness in leadership, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all recipe for success. Sure, women can strive to be self-aware leaders. That’s not a bad goal, as long as we also commit to ensuring that we keep others’ feedback constructive, productive, and in perspective.

Equity and Inclusion / Social Entrepreneurship / Stakeholder Capitalism
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