March 7, 2017 Professional Growth en_US By taking notes from a decades-old principle, female entrepreneurs can toss gendered expectations out the window and increase their business performance. How female entrepreneurs can hack the pygmalion effect to their advantage
Professional Growth

How female entrepreneurs can hack the pygmalion effect to their advantage

By Madeleine Somerville March 7, 2017

In June of 1963, a woman named Charlotte Whitton remarked, “Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily this is not difficult.”

Whitton was the first female mayor of a major Canadian city, and it’s safe to say that she knew a little about what it took to make it work in a male-dominated workplace. But, cheeky closing sentence aside, that now-famous quote paints a pretty bleak picture of the challenges she faced. It also cuts to the core of the challenges many women find themselves still facing, even today; the idea that they’re somehow “less than” when compared to men of equal experience and qualification.

We’re not talking about the pay gap (although we could be) and it’s not just perception, either. Sociologists Elizabeth Gorman of the University of Virginia and Julie Kmec of Washington State University have proven that among both American and British employees, women consistently report that they have to work harder than their male peers just to be seen as performing at an equal level.

“A lot of experimental research has shown that people rate the same performance as better when told it was done by a man.” Gorman says, “It follows that women have to do better than a man in order to get the same evaluation. Here we see how this plays out in the effort women must put in at work…This is what women are up against. They have to prove themselves.”

If women are being consistently undervalued and underrated in business roles, how does this affect what employers expect of them? If you see your female employee regularly turning in work which you rate (perhaps inaccurately) as less valuable than your male employee, you may eventually begin to expect less from her—and perhaps other female employees, too.

Why does this matter? Well, a phenomenon called the Pygmalion Effect explains that people typically rise to the expectations you have of them—something which has been demonstrated dozens of times since the relationship between expectation and performance was discovered in the 1960s.

The Harvard Business Review (HBR) explains the way the Pygmalion Effect works in business by saying,”The way managers treat their subordinates is subtly influenced by what they expect of them. If managers’ expectations are high, productivity is likely to be excellent. If their expectations are low, productivity is likely to be poor.”

It sounds like a recipe for success—expect a lot, get a lot. But for women in business, the Pygmalion Effect coupled with the research of Gorman and Kmec means that they may find themselves working harder than their male counterparts just to appear equal, while also missing out on the advantage of high expectations from their superiors.

Fortunately, because female entrepreneurs are the boss, they’re in a unique position to be able to hack the Pygmalion Effect to their favour.

Here’s the two key steps to do so:

1. Believe in yourself.

It sounds cheesy, but the research doesn’t lie: confidence creates both credibility and results. The HBR states that in business, the manager’s own proficiency is key to making the Pygmalion Effect a reality, explaining, “…the superior managers’ record of success and confidence in their own ability give their high expectations credibility. As a consequence, their subordinates accept these expectations as realistic and try hard to achieve them.”

In other words, believing in yourself doesn’t just mean crossed fingers and positivity mantras, it means owning and identifying with your successes and then using that confidence to motivate employees to deliver on high expectations.

Many women are used to working harder to get the same recognition as male co-workers, so when it’s time to believe in yourself why not give credit where credit is due?

2. Network, mentor, and support other women.

Having been on the receiving end of both lower expectations and higher minimum standards of performance, female entrepreneurs are in a perfect position to recognize these biases and prevent them from hampering the success of others.

By first accurately assessing their performance and then developing high expectations for female mentees or employees, female small-business owners can overcome gender bias in the workplace to foster success. And statistics show that this kind of woman-to-woman support is absolutely essential.

A report by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that seeks to support women in the workplace, found that 73% of women mentors were working with other women, compared to just 30% of men of male mentors doing the same.

It’s not so much sexism as it is human behaviour—people naturally gravitate towards people who are similar to them—but nonetheless, it means that without other women the status quo prevails.

When female entrepreneurs own their success, use it to motivate other women, and expect high performance from all involved, it means that they can toss gendered expectations out the window and use the full power of the Pygmalion Effect to their advantage.

Charlotte Whitton would be proud.

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Madeleine Somerville is a writer, blogger, and the author of All You Need Is Less. She has written for outlets both in print and online, including The Guardian, Earth911, Yahoo!Shine, TreeHugger, SheKnows, and Pure Green Magazine. She lives in Calgary, Canada with her four-year-old daughter and writes at Read more