This post was orginally published on https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20220222-proof-verus-potential-problem
In her 2013 book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg claimed that most men would apply for positions when they met just 60% of the requirements, while women would only apply if they met 100% of them. Sandberg’s claim was later debunked, due to its basis on anecdotal evidence rather than hard data – yet the sketchy statistic just wouldn’t go away.
It’s since been quoted in dozens of viral posts, articles and books, and is regularly used to prove that men’s potential is somehow more valued than women’s. Something about the idea resonated so deeply with people that its lack of factual backing didn’t seem to matter – it spoke to a phenomenon people were seeing and experiencing in their own lives.
Now, emerging research points to why the idea that women’s potential is judged differently to men’s rang true for so many women. A new study has shown women are consistently judged as having less leadership potential than their male counterparts, making them 14% less likely to be promoted each year. The research, which looked at a large North American retail chain, showed that even though women scored better performance ratings, they tended to receive low ‘potential scores’ – a measure of how much their managers believed that they would grow and develop in future.
Deciding whom to promote can be complicated business. Candidates have to demonstrate strong skills at their current level, and their managers also must believe they have the ability to perform at the next level up. Yet potential isn’t easily demonstrated; subjective measurements that assess it open the door for bias – and women often suffer as a result.
Some argue that hiring managers are solely at fault, with their inherent biases making it difficult to imagine women as leaders; others claim women are also holding themselves back by failing to self-promote. But the proof-versus-potential problem doesn’t just show up in the workplace – and solving such a deeply ingrained issue is far from straightforward.