This is the message leaders are sending to women everywhere. In fact, they're insisting women just be adequate.
March research from Ohio State University found that while employers hired men who had high GPAs, women with the same grades and experiences were passed over for women whose academic performance was just average. A highly-intelligent woman's odds of employment were even lower in male-dominated fields like mathematics.
This behavior suggests it's better for women to be adequate than try to excel. And this bias doesn't disappear once a woman is hired. It continues to affect how her performance is viewed as well as the developmental opportunities she's offered. Rather than being encouraged to succeed throughout her career, she's told to simply be good enough.
It's time to address this bias and inspire women to maximize their potential.
1. Stop focusing on likability.
One possible explanation for the trend discovered by Ohio State University is likability. As Laura Butler, senior vice president of people and culture at enterprise management solutions company Workfront, points out, smart women are often seen as harder to get along with. So, while skill and experience are what help men land jobs, for women, likability takes precedence.
Butler saw this bias firsthand several years ago while conducting productivity analytics for a company. She asked leaders in the organization to rank employees from highest performing to lowest. There was a woman at the top of the list described as a people person and a good communicator.
After doing her research, Butler found this woman was actually one of the least productive employees. "Without intending to, they placed a much higher premium on likability than getting the job done," Butler explained.
Don't make the same mistake. If you label a woman as a high performer based on her personality alone, you risk denying her honest feedback about her work. She won't see what her true strengths or weaknesses are and, therefore, will not be able to develop properly.
Look for signs that your leadership team is putting too much emphasis on likeability. For instance, if a manager begins a performance review with "I like Jane, she's a hard worker," ask for evidence. This will force you and your managers to assess each employee's true performance levels.
2. Define and analyze.
When leaders don't have clear definitions of what excellent performance looks like, they fill in the gaps with unconscious bias. In the same way they hire someone because of a 'gut feeling,' they tend to gauge how effective they are in their role subjectively. What they're really doing is giving into their prejudices.
Create objective criteria for each employee's performance. Focus on measurable goals that challenge the individual, whether they're male or female. Track how employees are progressing through regular performance reviews and engagement surveys.
Finally, take a step back and look at the data. This will not only show you where employees need extra support, but also where there are still unconscious biases.
For example, are men moving along their career paths more quickly? This could be because the company's developmental program doesn't meet the needs of women. Once you identify any gaps, survey female employees to see where you can make direct, positive changes.
3. Stop feeling threatened.
Are you more likely to surround yourself with the best talent, or people who agree with you? Hiring only those who support you helps maintain the status quo, but also it keeps a company from growing and evolving.
"Typically, leaders like to stay leaders," said Holly Caplan, author of Surviving the Dick Clique. "Conscious of it or not, the hiring manager will feel more comfortable with hiring a female who will not be a threat to leadership."
Shift your perspective. Look at intelligent women as opportunities instead of intimidators. Create a mentorship program that helps women reach their full potential. After all, it's better to have employees who push for change and innovation than a team of drones.
Most importantly, be sure you're not molding female employees to be just like you. Provide them with a variety of experiences and introduce them to leaders with different styles. This will provide them with a more well-rounded developmental opportunity. In exchange, your company will have capable, intelligent, and innovative women driving the team forward.