Women Get Less Credit For Speaking Up At Work Than Men, According To A New Study

by Mia Mercado

Giving credit where credit is due is apparently easier said than done, especially when it comes to crediting women in the workplace. A new study out of the University of Delaware found that women get less credit than men at work, specifically when it comes to speaking up and being considered for leadership roles.

Kyle Emich, lead researcher and assistant professor at the University of Delaware, said these results were consistent over two separate studies the team conducted. Emich said, “We find that when men speak up with ideas on how to change their team for the better they gain the respect of their teammates.” Men were seen as appearing knowledgeable and concerned for their team’s wellbeing when they spoke up, according to Emich. Men who were more vocal were in turn more likely to be seen as best suited for leadership roles.

However, the same was not true of the more vocal women. According to Emich, “When women speak up with ideas on how to change the team for the better, they are not given any more respect than women who do not speak up at all, and thus are not seen as viable leadership options.” Essentially, the study suggests that men who speak up are consistently seen as leaders. For women, speaking up had little effect on whether they would be perceived as a leader.

In Emich’s first study, researchers looked at ten-person teams of military cadets at West Point, tracking how frequently each cadets spoke up. Then, they asked cadets to vote on who they’d most likely pick to lead the team. Male cadets who spoke up the most were voted to be the No. 2 candidate (out of ten total candidates) for a leadership role. Female cadets who spoke up an equal amount were voted to be the No. 8 candidate for a leadership role.

In the second study, researchers looked at who was given credit for their opinions and ideas in among working adults across the United States. The results? “We find that men are given more credit than women even when saying the exact same thing,” Emich said. Cue a chorus of “duhs” from working women across the world.

We find that men are given more credit than women even when saying the exact same thing.

Emich also admitted that this didn’t come as much of a surprise to the women he spoke with. “The most common reaction I get [from women] is gratitude that we finally have data to show something they have been observing for years,” Emich said. “However, men are mostly oblivious. This is because they do not need to consider their gender in most organizational contexts, thus their unconscious biases remain just that, unconscious.”

We have implicit biases toward pretty much everything. Our brain is trained to group and “stereotype” as a shortcut to navigating the world. Emich used the example of choosing what to eat for breakfast in the morning. If you see a bowl of cereal and a plate of spaghetti, you’re probably going to pick the cereal as the more suitable breakfast food. You don’t necessarily have anything against spaghetti, at least not explicitly; it’s just not what you’ve been conditioned to associate with “breakfast” and it’s not something you’ve ever really questioned. Unfortunately, these implicit biases translate to more detrimental consequences when it comes to bigger things than breakfast foods.

Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.

Another recent study on gender inequality at work from Harvard Business Review shows just how deep this implicit bias towards exclusively seeing men in leadership roles goes. After six months of monitoring male and female employees’ behavior and language at work via body sensors, researchers found that while men and women act the same, they continue to be treated differently.

Researchers found no perceptible differences in behavior between male and female employees when analyzing everything from body language to accessibility of higher ups. However, men were advancing in their careers and women were not. This study’s key takeaway, in the words of its authors is this: “Gender inequality is due to bias, not differences in behavior.”

As with this new study from the University of Delaware, research is finding time and time again that changing women’s behavior is not the key to solving gender inequality in the workplace. While the Lean Ins and #GirlBosses of the world may aid in increasing confidence or give helpful career-advancing tips on an individual basis, these studies suggest they do little to solve the systemic gender inequality that persists in the workplace.

“I challenge any man reading this to go into your next meeting and see who comes up with ideas and who gets credit for them,” Emich wrote, and we agree with that idea. “I know this was an eye-opening exercise for me -- being a man who was previously unaware of the level of bias women face,” he continued. “At first, just observe. Then, eventually, step up and give credit where credit is due.” We know more than a few women who will gladly accept it.