Last year, The Beacon Group conducted a comparative review of the 360° feedback processes of two of our clients. The survey groups were each comprised of 115-125 middle and senior managers, receiving over 3,000 assessments in total. We were interested to see if there was a gender gap between the ratings received by female and male managers in these processes. If there was a gender gap, we were interested to see how significant the gap was, and whether there was a difference between the organizations, one of which was male-dominated while the other had a more balanced ratio of male and female managers.
A primary review of the data appeared to contradict our original assumption that female managers may be more harshly rated than their male counterparts. In fact, female managers, on average, scored slightly higher than males, and the very narrow but positive gap was identical for both the male-dominated and the gender balanced organization. This finding was positive and provides reason to be optimistic about general attitudes towards female managers in the workplace today.
As a follow-up, we conducted a secondary analysis which separated the data into middle and senior management participants. When we re-analysed just the middle managers, the amount by which their performance ratings exceeded those of male managers, at the same level, showed a more significant gap. Female employees at the middle management level, in both of these organizations, received higher ratings, on average, than males. Furthermore, the size of the positive gender gap was virtually identical for both the male dominated and the gender balanced groups.
When we separated senior level managers into their own data group, however, a different and reversed picture emerged. In both the male dominated and gender balanced organizations, female senior managers, on average, received significantly harsher ratings than male managers at the same level. This more specific analysis suggested that female managers were perceived more negatively at higher levels, compared to their male counterparts, as well as compared to how they were judged as middle managers.
Based on just two organizations, it isn’t possible to draw conclusions about how common this finding might be, or what specific factors may have driven contrasting assessment patterns between women in middle and senior management positions. Based on the large group sizes, however, and remarkable similarity in trend, it should certainly lead us to consider the question of why this might happen. If this is in fact a broader reality, it most certainly has the potential to impact both the advancement opportunities available to women, as well as their desire to seek out and maintain senior leadership roles in business.