Matthew Futterman’s recent piece in The Wall Street Journal “The U.S. Soccer Double Standard,” should sound very familiar to scholars of work.
He makes the very strong case that women athletes in the U.S. are held to a different standard than men. The evidence? Female soccer players on the UNDEFEATED 2015 U.S. World Cup team are accused of “sloppy, uncreative play” (despite outscoring opponents by a wide margin), having “unsatisfying wins,” and some players are even apologizing for some victories, saying that their play will improve. The coach has even been defensive in response to recent victories.
In contrast, Futterman goes on to point out, soccer players in last year’s men’s U.S. World Cup team won one game (against Ghana), tied a game (against Portugal), and lost to Germany and Belgium yet were hailed as the “spunky underdogs storming the gates of the soccer establishment” and widely celebrated upon their return home. I’m not able to find record of ANY member of the men’s national team apologizing for their 2014 World Cup performance. The double standard, some argue, is because we have heightened expectations for women to win—and win big—and expect less of the men. The women recently won two World Cup titles (in 1991 and 1999) and at the start of World Cup play were ranked second in the world by FIFA. The men have qualified for every World Cup since 1990 but have never won a title.
Researchers who study the workplace and workplace evaluation would disagree with the reason for this double standard. It’s not about their excellent past performance but instead about the expectations we have about women’s performance at work (whether it’s on the field or in an office). I’ve cited the literature on this topic in an article with coauthor Elizabeth Gorman. We point out that social psychological and sociological research spanning nearly two decades has concluded that:
- people evaluate the same performance better when they are told it was done by a man than a woman,
- when an excellent performance is produced jointly by a woman and man people assume that the man contributed more than the woman,
- people tend to attribute women’s success to luck rather than skill. The opposite is true for men whose successes are almost always seen as a result of their skill, and
- evaluators tend to require higher performance from women than from men before they are deemed competent.
The research goes on to point out that if women are deemed competent and worthy, people around them tend to label them as “unlikeable” and “difficult” unless they place the interest of others above their own (but that when they do emphasize their work group, their individual efforts tend to go unnoticed).
What’s going on with the commentary and expectations surrounding the U.S.’s 2015 World Cup seems in line with what these researchers have found. Commentators talk about the team’s skill as being underwhelming. One wonders. If they win the World Cup, will it be called luck? One also has to wonder, as Futterman cleverly points out, whether the story would be different if the men’s national team performance in 2014 was as good as the women’s 2015 performance. Here’s a way to test that (anyone looking for a paper idea?): Ask a sample of people to rate both the men’s national team performance in the 2014 World Cup and the women’s national team performance in this year’s World Cup but without knowing which team is which. In other words, blind the team name. Better yet, assign the 2014 U.S. men’s team the 2015 U.S. women’s team record and vice versa.
Whether it is in sport, in the boardroom, or on the shop floor, it seems that gender stereotypes still shape how we rate job performance.