The “impostor syndrome,” or the concept that an individual — usually a woman — internalizes their accomplishments due to the fear or being exposed as a “fraud,” is immensely damaging to workplace gender equality. Nonetheless, the feeling of unworthiness plagues working women, and feeling this way actually manifests self-fulfilling prophecies and perpetuates the false notion that women are indeed inherently less successful than men.
In short, when a woman fails to take credit for her own work, she fails working women everywhere because far fewer females are thus recognized as successful — and we need female role models. The thing is that women are successful, and it’s about time they take credit for it.
But touting your own efforts is not easy, and studies show that women do so far less than men for a gamut of reasons, particularly when they work in groups.
In a study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, researchers Michelle C. Haynes and Madeline E. Heilman found that women are unlikely to take credit for their role in group work in mixed-gender settings, unless their roles are explicitly clear to outsiders. When women worked only among other women, however, they didn’t have any difficulty taking credit.
“Women gave more credit to their male teammates and took less credit themselves unless their role in bringing about the performance outcome was irrefutably clear or they were given explicit information about their likely task competence,” the study reports. “However, women did not credit themselves less when their teammate was female.”
Perhaps this phenomenon occurs in mixed-gender groups because women don’t think they deserve as much credit as men, merely because we’re conditioned to think this way.
Heather Sarsons, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, explored this in another study in 2015 in which she looked at “CVs from economists who went up for tenure between 1975 and 2014 in one of the top 30 PhD-granting universities in the United States.” She found a bias toward men in instances where men and women co-authored research papers, and found that co-authoring with men was actually a disability for women in their work. She called it a “co-author penalty,” because, while women who solo-author everything have roughly the same chance of receiving tenure as a man, women who coauthor most of their work have a significantly lower probability of receiving tenure.
When Sarsons assessed all possible explanations, she found that the penalty wasn’t determined by the credentials or skill of the co-author, but, rather, it was the result of our unconscious bias for male economists.
“Many occupations require group work,” Sarsons writes. “The tech industry, for example, prides itself on collaboration. In such male-dominated fields, however, group work in which a single output is produced could sustain the leaky pipeline if employers rely on stereotypes to attribute credit.”
Yes, women are typically natural sharers and group participants, socially conditioned to maintain the “we” over the “I” mentality — and it’s humbling. But there are ways women can take credit for their work without coming off like they’re boasting or calling attention to themselves… despite the fact that their male counterparts do it all the time.
While it might seem obvious to encourage women to work individually, as opposed to on teams, research shows that women can also be penalized for failing to collaborate.
In her dissertation research, Dr. Julie Chen, a former psychology NYU doctoral student of Heilman, who conducted the first aforementioned study, demonstrated that, when women did not involve others in decision-making about the use of organizational resources, they were assigned lower performance ratings than men. Evaluators also recommended that those women receive lower salary increases, fewer promotions and more limited opportunities for participation on high-profile projects.
So what can women do to take credit for their work among mixed-gender groups?
1. Share female colleagues' successes.
“First, it’s important to note that women themselves are part of the problem,” Heilman wrote in an article on Quartz. “In study after study, we have found that female as well as male evaluators attribute less credit to women than men for teamwork. Women, along with men, devalue the contributions of other women.”
When women speak up for one another, we lift each other up. If more women bragged for each other, we wouldn’t have to do it for ourselves — even though we always should to some capacity.
2. Take ownership of parts of the project that have objective performance indicators.
“It’s easier to point out your contributions to a project if they are discrete and irrefutable,”Heilman added. “So, if possible, try to take ownership of parts of the project that are contained and have objective performance indicators. For example, in a group presentation, you divide up the tasks and take full responsibility for putting together a two-minute video. This will make it harder, if not impossible, for your colleagues to dismiss your contributions. You may also want to try choosing work for which you are uniquely qualified compared to other members of the group. If you’re the only person who speaks fluent Spanish or has business contacts in Hong Kong, it will be a lot harder for others (or for you) to fail to acknowledge your hard work.”
Likewise, it’s easier to take credit for successes that are data-driven. If no one can refute the facts, you won’t have to worry about feeling like a fraud. The proof is in the data, and that does most of the talking for you.
3. Clarify your role.
“Most people are unaware of the gender biases that lead them to undervalue women’s contributions, so if a boss or another colleague seems to be giving you short shrift, assume that there’s no bad intent, but do find a private moment to give them more information about your role in the project,” Heilamn wrote.
And if you can clarify your role ahead of time, and delineate your responsibilities in the project verbally or, preferably, in a way that's recorded, then you can make note of the fact that you have checked those boxes upon completion.
4. Volunteer to be the spokesperson.
“Anecdotally, it seems that the person who presents a project to a group tends to get credit automatically,”Heilman said. “So women may want to counter our cultural tendency to underestimate their contributions by asking… if they can be the ones to do the talking.”
Women can then speak of their own achievements while thanking their team for the support and collective effort.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.