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BackResearch from Associate Professor: bosses can feel threatened by successful women in the workplace Organisational behaviour

Research from Associate Professor: bosses can feel threatened by successful women in the workplace

Research by Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour Ena Inesi shows that some bosses – particularly male ones that prefer strong hierarchies – are threatened by competent women, such as those who have attended an elite university or demonstrated exceptional performance in a previous job. These are known as competence signals.

When giving performance reviews, such managers tend to rate women with fewer past successes more positively than those with greater accomplishments. This is because they feel psychologically threatened, according to Dr Inesi. “Although competence signals can help during the hiring process, those same signals can have a detrimental effect on later performance evaluations,” she wrote in an article for London Business School Review

Dr Inesi’s research, carried out with Professor of Organisational Behaviour Dan Cable, highlights this particular challenge for women in business. While women should share their achievements – as Sally Helgesen and Marshall Goldsmith state in How Women Rise – those very accomplishments may prove a stumbling block in future appraisals.   

The starting point for Inesi and Professor Cable’s study was a data set of real performance evaluations in one branch of the US military. On analysing this data, they spotted a negative relationship between past competence signal strength and performance evaluations when the woman was performing to a high level in her current role. 

“There were other studies suggesting this might be the case but to see it so starkly was surprising to us,” said Dr Inesi. “Women know they are going to encounter challenges: people are going to make assumptions about your competence based on your gender so you are going to do everything you can to prove yourself. 

"What this research shows is that these accomplishments are looked upon in a threatening way by some individuals, which can have a negative downstream effect.”