Bragging their way to the top

Are a lack of bragging skills what's keeping women out of the top ranks of business?

There’s a serious lack of women in the top ranks of business, but maybe that’s because men are better braggers, says a new study. U.S. and Spanish researchers asked M.B.A. students to do math problems, finding that men and women performed about the same. But when they were asked to recall how well they scored over a year later, the men ranked their performance 30 per cent better than it actually was; for women, it was 15 per cent.

Participants were then asked to do the math problems in groups, with each group picking a leader. Cash was offered to whichever team won, making sure teams picked a leader they felt was strongest; some leaders got cash incentives, too, adding a reason to boast about their past results. Both men and women were willing to lie, they found, but men exaggerated their abilities more. Women were selected one-third less often as leaders.

Researchers chalked it up to “honest overconfidence,” since men seem to unconsciously inflate their abilities, and warned employers not to mistake this for true performance. “It’s not just a matter of telling men not to lie,” says co-author Ernesto Reuben of Columbia Business School, since men seem to honestly believe their skills are that good—a finding likely to induce some eye-rolling among female counterparts.

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