How to get past the underestimation of your potential that can hinder career progression for women (and people of color)

Performance versus potential

Women and minoritized employees still fight against the perception that they are less suited to leadership than men. But, according to the research, one barrier to their progress is that men are more likely than women to be promoted on potential versus actual performance.

Research shows that women get lower leadership potential ratings than men, even when two candidates have identical resumes. Ironically, women get lower potential ratings even when their performance ratings in their current jobs are higher than men’s performance ratings. Yet, women who are promoted get higher ratings as managers than men. Additionally, although women get more positive ratings as leaders, they still get lower ratings than their male counterparts for the next higher-level leadership opportunity! This inequity is why it is so difficult for women to get into executive roles; the problem gets worse, not better, for women as they move up in the organization. In other words, women are rated as better performers when they get the job., it’s getting the job in the first place that isn’t easy.

So, what can women (and people of color) do to get what they want at work?

  • Develop relationships with those who control the outcomes you seek. If you intend to stay with the organization, take a long-game approach, but start building critical relationships (especially if you are working remotely) as soon as possible. Sometimes your value is not what you DO; it is who likes YOU!
  • Understand your long-term career game plan and how your current job relates to your end goal. If you see the potential for long-term success, handle all conversations about your career like a sales pitch: be prepared, be specific, be personable, and ask for what you want (specifically).
  • Know how to campaign for compensation, promotion, etc., that match your value. Demonstrate your unique value to your team and the organization in terms of how that value helps the entity achieve IT’s desired outcomes. Talk specifics about your job and how your pay compares to the market for comparable jobs. Gather information about the compensation/benefits within your organization, but also be able to compare the internal picture to what is happening outside of the company.
  • Avoid behaviors that can sabotage your career goals:
    • Looking at this from a short-term or narrow perspective.
    • Threatening to quit if they don’t get what they want.
    • Withholding performance, e.g., slowing down your work pace and productivity.
    • Assuming that the person with whom you first have this conversation has the power to make the change you desire. Even if that first person is your manager, do not depend on your manager as your sole career advocate.
    • Talking about the issue with coworkers in a way that is intended to pull them into the mix.

While it is true that women and minoritized folk may be at a disadvantage when it comes to judgments others make about their potential for promotion, those employees can take action to overcome those barriers so they can progress at their current employer (or elsewhere, if necessary).