Click for Academy of Management home page

Academy of Management

Women are a lot more sensitive than men to the ratings they receive from co-workers, study suggests

January 1, 2013

For more information, contact: Ben Haimowitz , 212-233-6170,

At a time when peer feedback is an increasingly common tool in cultivating corporate leadership, women stand out from men in at least one critical respect -- they are much more likely than men to take their co-workers' assessments of them to heart, new research suggests.

In what may be the first study to contrast how the two sexes respond over an extended period to peer critiques, a report in the current issue of Academy of Management Learning& Education finds that "women more quickly and rationally align their self-awareness with peers' views of them, whereas men continue to rationalize and inflate their self-image over time."

Asked to rate themselves on four key leadership competences -- self-confidence, self-management, interpersonal understanding, and behavioral flexibility --both men and women initially rate themselves higher on each competence than their peers do, the study finds. But over the course of six months women's self-assessments decline more steeply than men's to the point where in the end they "had essentially converged with peer ratings."

These results suggest, the study concludes, "that women are closing the gap between self- and peers' ratings faster than men, exhibiting more sensitivity to social cues." In addition, "these differences in reaction to peer feedback [are] persistent."

Does this greater sensitivity constitute an advantage for women in gaining positions of leadership? Not necessarily, according to Margarita Mayo of Spain's IE Business School, who carried out the research with her IE colleague Juan Carlos Pastor as well as Maria Kakarika of France's Kedge Business School and Stephane Brutus of Canada's Concordia University.

"Women's heightened sensitivity to their peers' critiques can be a two-edged sword," comments Prof. Mayo. "Aligning their self-image to reflect what others think of them represents an advance in self-awareness, which is a big step in leadership development. But, when self-awareness entails doubts about one's competence, it can induce paralysis unless women take their cue from their peers to seek out the training and coaching that will enable them to take on new challenges.

"Likewise men's overestimation of their leadership abilities can have both positive and negative consequences. Preserving their sense of personal efficacy in the face of negative feedback can help them take on new challenges; yet, persistently ignoring the plain message of others is hardly a prescription for success over the long haul.

"In sum," the professor concludes, "multisource feedback will advance leadership development to the extent that programs combine feedback with coaching in keeping with the different ways men and women respond to the ratings of their peers."

The paper's findings derive from a study involving 221 MBA students, 169 males and 52 females, with a mean age of about 30 years and an average of about six and a half years of work experience. At the start of the one-year MBA program, the students were assigned to mixed-gender teams who worked together every day on a variety of assignments with the result that the five or six team members got to know each other quite well.

Peer feedback was carried out at the end of each of the three semesters that made up the school year, in January, April, and June. Students sat at computers in a large room and completed a Web-based survey that asked them to rate themselves and their teammates on 12 items (three for each of the aforementioned leadership competences). Items included "shows confidence when facing unforeseen situations" (self-confidence); "knows when to work and when to relax" (self-management); "doesn't feel stressed or frustrated when doing several tasks at the same time" (flexibility); and "actively seeks the opinion of others" (interpersonal understanding). Participants rated themselves and others on a scale of 1 ("not at all") to 5 ("completely"). One week following data collection, students received survey results, including their average rating from teammates compared to their self-ratings on each of the four leadership competences.

The professors found that for the group as a whole average self-ratings invariably exceeded peer ratings and that average self-ratings declined with time. For example, the average self-rating for self-confidence in the first survey was 3.95 (on a scale of 1 to 5) compared to an average peer rating of 3.69, while the corresponding figures for the second survey were 3.85 and 3.59 and for the third survey were 3.74 and 3.60. But the pattern was quite different for men than it was for women: for men it was 3.99 (self-rating) vs.3.70 (peer rating) on the first survey, 3.92 vs. 3.64 on the second survey, and 3.84 vs. 3.64 on the third survey; for women it was 3.84 vs. 3.67 on the first survey, 3.64 vs. 3.44 on the second survey, and 3.42 vs. 3.47 on the third and last survey.

Thus, by the time the last survey rolled around, at the conclusion of the school year, women's average self-rating on confidence was actually slightly lower than the average rating bestowed by their teammates. The same was true for flexibility, where women's average self-rating at year's end was 3.43, slightly lower than an average peer rating of 3.50, a sharp reversal of the 3.58 (self) vs 3.39 (peer) in the second survey.

Only in the case of one of the four competences, that of self-management, did no significantly different pattern of self-awareness emerge between the genders over time. The professors surmise that this may have to do with "internalized gender stereotypes." In other words, "since self-management might be a stereotypical female attribute, women may be less sensitive than men to feedback on this competence."

The researchers tested the association of a number of other factors with changes in leadership self-awareness -- including national culture (the students represented 27 nationalities), socioeconomic class, amount of work experience, academic background, age, and amount of managerial experience -- and found all to be either unrelated or only marginally related to changes in self-awareness, in sharp contrast to the significant associations found for gender. For example, whether participants were of Latin culture (58%) or Anglo culture (27%) was unrelated to their sensitivity to peer ratings.

The study, "Aligning  or Inflating Your LeadershipSelf-Image? A Longitudinal Study of Responses to Peer Feedback inMBA Teams," is in the December 2012 issue of Academy of Management Learning & Education.  This peer-reviewed publication is published quarterly by the Academy, which, with more than 18,000 members in over 100 countries, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. The Academy's other publications are the Academy of Management Review, Academy of Management Journal, and Academy of Management Perspectives.

Academy of Management
Member Services
Academy of Management
Online Opportunities
Academy of Management