Once upon a time when I was a summer associate at a major investment bank, a Managing Director convened all the women in the class into a room and told us this fable: “If someone asked an auditorium full of people, ‘Who here knows something about breastfeeding?,’ all the men would raise their hands high into the air and say ‘me! Me! I do!’
“And all the women would half-raise their hands tentatively, saying “I don’t know. I only have two kids. I’m not an expert or anything.’”
While fictional, I find this story to be one of the most useful illustrations I’ve ever heard of a difference in perception that exists between men and women. While many call this a confidence gap, I prefer to think that that it’s more like a standards gap. Women just have higher standards for what they expect from themselves. Men give themselves more room for failure, and tend to be more forgiving toward themselves.
In the workplace, there are few places where this difference in perception rears its ugly head as much as in self-assessments, which are now commonplace as a step before a performance review takes place.
If you’re like me, when it comes time for a self-assessment at work, you dread it and procrastinate until there’s almost no time left to complete it. Frankly, I can think of few things that leave me feeling more vulnerable and exposed than having to rate my own performance. And on paper, no less.
Because of my own experience, I was really intrigued when I came across this recent essay in The Wall Street Journal that asserts that one of the greatest systematic culprits of gender bias in corporation is self-assessments. Because women are notoriously more humble or less confident when completing these self-assessments, they almost always rate themselves lower than men who perform similarly.
The Journal article argues that institutions must change to do away with this kind of systematic bias. But, until institutions change (and that can take a long time), here are some things you can do to assess yourself more like a man the next time you’re faced with an at-work self-assessment:
Bragging doesn't come naturally to many women, and we're afraid it will be off-putting. But you're being asked, so take this chance to list out your accomplishments. As executive coach Peggy Klaus writes in her book, Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn without Blowing It, “remaining quiet about yourself or downplaying your successes leads to being underappreciated and opens the door for allowing others to take credit for your achievements.”
It may not come easily at first, but it’s like a muscle that you need to exercise. Take credit for your accomplishments, and take the time to list them out in detail. Klaus even asserts that bragging is an art form, and you should prepare and practice to improve. And I can’t think of a better place to practice than on your self-assessment.
2. Realize that even small accomplishments are worth noting.
Years ago, I had a job where I was asked to document my objectives as accomplishments every week. I was always thinking to myself, “are these objectives lofty enough? Am I accomplishing enough?” Then one day, I had a chance to see my male colleague’s list and his accomplishments included "got oriented on new attendance system."
In that one moment, I came to realize that my male colleagues identified certain tasks as “accomplishments” that I assumed were considered standard operating procedure.
Understanding this disparity in the way men and women think, re-frame your appraisal of what you’ve accomplished in a given day, week, quarter or year. And take notes as you go along -- so you’ll be ready to list out many, small accomplishments when the time comes.
3. Lower your standards.
“Men are easy graders,” says Klaus. “Women much harder on themselves”. So when you’re appraising your performance, you are likely to be your harshest critic. Go easy on yourself!
If you’re evaluating your performance on a particular project or objective, inflate the grade. Focus on what you achieved, even if in your mind a thousand things could have gone better.
4. Consider your audience.
Be sure to think about your manager who will be reading your self-assessment. What does he/she want to hear? How can you make him/her a hero through what you've written? Most good managers are trying hard to develop their team and create good experiences, so if you can show you've grown professionally thanks to his/her contributions, that message will likely be appreciated and well received.
While none of these actions may come very naturally to you, just close your eyes and think of all those men raising their hands high to talk about their knowledge of breastfeeding. And do your best imitation!
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