How to Fix the ‘Think Star, Think Men’ Bias

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Wednesday, July 3, 2024
By Herman Aguinis, Isabel Villamor
Photo by iStock/May Lim
Women are far less likely than men to be viewed as top performers. What can managers do to ensure workers are recognized free of gender bias?
  • Our latest research discovered that star performers are described as being driven, relational, extraordinary, fascinating, tenacious, and brilliant.
  • Especially in male-dominated fields, people tend to assign more masculine traits to star performers than to employees who are merely characterized as very good at what they do.
  • Organizational leaders should refine their criteria for excellence, revamp talent management systems, and build inclusive cultures to support women’s advancement and ensure they receive equal recognition.

Quick. Visualize the most outstanding employee at the typical corporation or university. Did you picture a man?

It wouldn’t be surprising if you did. Over the past decade, a substantial body of work has revealed that women are far less likely than men to be viewed as star performers relative to their population totals. For example, a study involving 59,278 researchers showed that women are significantly underrepresented in the highest performance echelons, consisting of the top 1 to 10 percent of workers.

Often the problem is a productivity gap: Women must achieve more impressive accomplishments than their male counterparts to attain the same star status. However, sociocultural factors—such as family responsibilities that take up a disproportionate amount of women’s time—can prevent women from taking on high-visibility assignments.

Implicit gender biases can be another root cause of the disparity because women often receive less recognition than men even when they have comparable performance and records. For example, another study discovered that women received only 12 percent of the accolades among recipients of prestigious international research awards.

The two of us recently conducted research to study the factors behind what we have dubbed the “Think Star, Think Men” phenomenon. We found that people tend to associate “star qualities” primarily with masculine attributes, especially in male-dominated fields.

As we seek to explain the challenges women face in being recognized for their contributions, we hope to define and assess excellence in a way that transcends stereotypes and fosters an environment where top workers are celebrated regardless of their gender. Acknowledging and addressing gender biases is a responsibility for everyone, including managers and top administrators at business schools, and recognizing these biases is a crucial first step toward effectively addressing them.

When organizational leaders reflect on their perceptions and practices, they will develop a more inclusive understanding of what constitutes a star performer and create more equitable workplaces.

Defining a Star

To understand why women are not perceived as “having what it takes” to be top employees, we first must pinpoint what attributes define star performers. To that end, our recent study engaged more than 1,200 participants in a comprehensive process of evaluating those characteristics. Our goal was to move beyond simplistic labels and uncover the nuanced traits that differentiate high-level performance.

We first asked 167 individuals to enumerate the adjectives they associated with star performers. From the initial 678 unique descriptors we gathered, we narrowed the list down to the 57 most frequently mentioned words. Next, we had a group of 351 working adults rate the 57 adjectives so we could distill them into the definitive characteristics of star performers.

The six core characteristics of star performers are universally positive. Moreover, stars are recognized by their performance and personal achievements, not their physicality.

Through exploratory factor analysis, we identified six core characteristics synonymous with star performers: driven, relational, extraordinary, fascinating, tenacious, and brilliant. To ensure the reliability of our findings, we conducted a confirmatory factor analysis with another 377 participants and a subsequent validation with 362 working adults. Once we had established the stability and consistency of these traits, we were well on our way to crafting our Implicit Star Performer Theories.

We found it interesting that the attributes associated with star performers are a distinct contrast to those linked to leaders. For one thing, the six core characteristics of star performers are universally positive, whereas the traits associated with leaders include some that are negative, such as tyrannical. For another, many leaders are described in ways that emphasize physical appearance or masculinity. By contrast, stars are recognized by their performance and personal achievements, not their physicality.

Sifting Through Attributes

Even so, we wanted to examine whether star performers were seen as more masculine than workers viewed as very good employees. To do this, we conducted a two-part study that relied on an indirect approach known as the Princeton Trilogy. This information-gathering method reduces social desirability bias and relies on participants’ perceptions of societal views rather than personal beliefs.

First, we asked 167 working adults to rate a list of masculine characteristics. Then, for the main part of the study, we brought in a different group of 323 people. We randomly assigned them to consider either star performers (the top 1 percent of workers) or very good employees (the top 10 percent to 20 percent). Participants first selected attributes they believed the average American would associate with each group and then narrowed these down to their assigned group’s ten most characteristic attributes.

Results showed that attributes linked to star performers were considered more masculine than those related to very good employees, suggesting that star performers are perceived to embody more masculine traits. This is true even though previous research has suggested that performance information might mitigate gender biases.

Exploring Gender Biases

Our third study explored whether star performers were associated with masculine attributes across all jobs or within typically male-dominated occupations. Specifically, we looked at the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—fields known both for their significant economic contributions and their gender imbalances. For this study, we utilized congruence tests similar to those used to analyze the “think crisis, think female” phenomenon, suggesting that women are more likely to be appointed CEOs when companies are in trouble.

Our study unfolded in two phases, involving 573 participants in total. Initially, 113 participants used Schein’s Descriptive Index to evaluate the masculinity and femininity of various attributes. Characteristics such as aggressive and dominant were commonly linked with men, whereas descriptors such as sentimental and sympathetic were more frequently associated with women. Traits such as competent and intelligent were more gender-balanced, being equally attributed to both men and women.

For our second phase, we brought in 460 participants who assessed how these attributes applied to star performers in three distinct occupational settings: software development (a male-dominated field), biology (a gender-balanced field), and clinical psychology (a female-dominated field).

When societal norms and professional environments interact to amplify gender biases, gender disparities are perpetuated in ways that affect how women advance in the workplace.

When we used intraclass correlations and Pearson’s correlation coefficients to organize our findings, we discovered that star performers often were described with attributes rated as masculine. This tendency was particularly true in male-dominated and gender-balanced fields, but somewhat less pronounced in women-dominated fields.

These results confirmed the “think star, think men” premise of our research. They also underscored how occupational contexts can intensify societal stereotypes and complicate women’s challenges in achieving recognition as star performers. When societal norms and professional environments interact to amplify gender biases, gender disparities are perpetuated in ways that affect how women advance in the workplace.

Developing Practical Policies

The implications of these findings are far-reaching, particularly for organizations working toward gender equality and diversity. These include business schools, which not only strive to achieve equity within their own ranks, but also offer courses and workshops designed to help corporate partners become more diverse and inclusive.

We suggest that organizations take a multipronged approach to transcending gendered stereotypes and ensuring that women are equally likely to be recognized for their contributions:

Refine the criteria for excellence. Companies should adopt objective, measurable standards that avoid gendered stereotypes and abandon subjective criteria that may inadvertently disadvantage women. They can begin this process by adopting the following practices:

  • Implementing annual performance reviews that follow specific, job-related criteria.
  • Introducing a blind evaluation process by removing identifying information so reviewers can focus solely on qualifications and achievements.
  • Ensuring that all job descriptions are clearly defined with explicit competencies and performance goals that are identical for all employees in similar roles.

Revamp talent management systems. Leaders can mitigate biases and ensure a level playing field for all employees if they rigorously evaluate and restructure recruitment, selection, promotion, and recognition processes. They should ensure that an equal number of men and women are shortlisted for any job position and select the best candidate from this diverse pool. They also can reduce unconscious bias in the recruitment and selection process by utilizing diverse hiring panels that include members from various backgrounds.

Companies should adopt objective, measurable standards that avoid gendered stereotypes and abandon subjective criteria that may inadvertently disadvantage women.

Build inclusive organizational cultures that actively challenge gender stereotypes and value diversity. To do this, leaders need to implement targeted awareness and training programs that address and reduce implicit biases. To accommodate different lifestyles and family responsibilities, managers can specifically develop policies that support diverse work-life balance needs, such as flexible working hours.

Additionally, organizations can create systems that provide continuous feedback based on objective performance, as well as clear guidelines for advancement. Such measures enable employees to understand their performances in real time, encouraging them to make adjustments and achieve growth without being hindered by institutional biases.

Support the career advancement of women. For example, organizations can establish formal mentorship programs that pair senior employees with junior ones. Under the guidance of veteran employees, newer workers will gain exposure to critical business knowledge and have opportunities to undertake challenging projects that can lead to career growth.

Managers also can choose women to lead high-visibility projects and initiatives. Research shows that women often are assigned more administrative and clerical tasks, so it is crucial that they have opportunities to showcase their skills and contributions in ways that catch the attention of the company’s decision-makers.

Tearing Down Barriers

While institutional policies are essential, individual actions also play a vital role in promoting gender equity. We encourage both men and women to recognize, confront, and dismantle entrenched stereotypes. We particularly call on men to participate in the movement toward gender equity by using their positions of influence to advocate for and support their female colleagues.

With “Think Star, Think Men,” we hope to create awareness of the gender biases that skew perceptions of excellence and impede women’s advancement. Our goal is to help individuals and organizations address the barriers women face in the workplace and provide a blueprint for dismantling those barriers. To that end, we offer practical recommendations for fostering more inclusive and equitable environments so that everyone, regardless of their gender, has an equal opportunity to be perceived as “having what it takes” to be a star—to show they are driven, relational, extraordinary, fascinating, tenacious, and brilliant.

The path forward requires a collective commitment to reevaluating success criteria, championing diversity, and creating opportunities for all individuals to showcase their potential. By confronting gender biases head-on and instituting meaningful reforms, we can pave the way for a future where excellence is recognized and rewarded and everyone has opportunities to shine as a star performer.

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Herman Aguinis
Avram Tucker Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Management, The George Washington School of Business, The George Washington University
Isabel Villamor
Assistant Professor, Managing People in Organizations Department, IESE Business School, University of Navarra
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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