THE BLOG
01/10/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2014

How Women Get Cheated Out of Their Successes

Gary Houlder via Getty Images

Women are getting more advanced degrees than men, moving into male-dominated areas of business and aiming high. But they are not moving ahead when it comes to sitting on corporate boards or making it to senior leadership positions in major companies.

A new report from the research firm Catalyst finds that women hold only a paltry 17 percent of the seats on boards of Fortune 500 companies and they have an even tinier share --15 percent -- of senior level jobs. Women's progress has been flat for 10 years, according to the Alliance Board for Diversity's recent report "Missing Pieces."

One possible reason for this logjam?

No matter how stellar women's performance, they are unlikely to get credit for their success, even when it's due.

This was a major complaint we heard when we talked to female employees for our book, The New Soft War on Women. Time and time again, they said, they worked with a man on a very successful team project and he got all the credit. This often happened even when she was the driving force in the project's outcome.

They weren't just imagining or exaggerating this problem. Social science research shows that it does indeed exist, and can be a major stumbling block in a woman's career. Women work hard and achieve the desired results -- and men get the credit. New York University psychology professor Madeline Heilman and Michelle Haynes of UMass Amherst have shown that when it is not crystal clear about which member of a two-member, male-female team is responsible for the team's successful joint performance, credit is far more often given to the male than the female team member. Specifically, female members were rated as being less competent, less influential and less likely to have played a leadership role in work on the task. Both females and males fell into the trap of giving higher marks to the male team member.

A 36-year-old-media manager who had been on the job for 12 years told us, "Actually, myself and two other women co‑created a huge (and profitable) project, including the creation of a news-gathering database system. A male colleague took credit and is still consistently credited by our (mostly male) management as not just the creator, but the 'most knowledgeable' on the system."

One female attorney reported:

I worked on a project with a young male partner, where he oversaw my work and strategy on the matter. My hard work and strategic decision-making led to our client winning and to significant attorneys' fees in the case. When the young male partner reported to the shareholders of our success, I was only cc'd on the email and was not given any credit. The shareholders responded to the male partner's success story with a 'well done, young man,' having no clue that it was me, and not the male partner, who should have been credited with the win.

These stories are sadly all too familiar. Women work hard and achieve the desired results -- and men get the credit.

This oversight isn't only unfair, but can lead to the man being promoted while the woman doesn't advance. The No Credit Where Credit is Due syndrome can combine with another problem that can multiply its impact. Men in top jobs are already programmed to see other males as "like them" and ready for prime time. With women, not so much.

As Herminia Ibarra, Robin Ely and Deborah Kolb note in the Harvard Business Review, "The human tendency to gravitate to people who are like oneself leads powerful men to sponsor and advocate for other men when leadership opportunities arise."

One woman we spoke to was the second-in-command of a magazine section edited by a male senior editor. The woman was well respected by everybody on the staff, did the lion's share of the editing and was a go‑getter who came up with new ideas all the time. But when the senior editor announced his retirement, she was shocked when he appointed a much-less experienced young man to the position. When she protested, he said that the young man impressed him because "he reminded me of myself at the same age."

So, if a woman doesn't get credit when she does an outstanding job -- and a man who was not as good gets a pat on the back -- the woman runs into a double whammy when the issue of promotion arises. She didn't get the credit, the man was overpraised and both facts feed neatly into what the guy doing the hiring had in his head already. He doesn't think he's discriminating. He would probably be very surprised if anyone suggested he was.

What we found in our research was that gender bias has not vanished as we hoped it would. It's just gone underground, is more subtle and is often harder to see and to combat than the old in-you-face sort of discrimination.

The HBR writers argue:

Without an understanding of second-generation bias, people are left with stereotypes to explain why women as a group have failed to achieve parity with men: If they can't reach the top, it is because they 'don't ask,' are 'too nice' or simply 'opt out. These messages tell women who have managed to succeed that they are exceptions and women who have experienced setbacks that it is their own fault for failing to be sufficiently aggressive or committed to the job.

So, what can women do? They can be prepared. It would be wonderful if all bias disappeared tomorrow, but that's hardly likely. They can expect that they will indeed run into the new types of discrimination, and not sit passively by or retreat. A few tips:

• Talk yourself up.
• It is absolutely essential that women let their bosses and colleagues know about their accomplishments. If a man gets credit for the work that you have done, it's fatal to just sit there and seethe, because silence can accelerate a downward spiral.
• Make sure that the right people know what your real contribution was to a team effort. Don't let people just assume that you were a junior partner.
• Seek a high-placed colleague to introduce you and speak glowingly about your credits.
• Use social media and emails to get information to your superiors and to people who are friends and colleagues of your superiors.

Is it fair that women have to strategize about ways to present their accomplishments, while men can just do it straightforwardly? Of course not. But that's life.

One day, hopefully in the not-too distant future, women will get credit for what they've done just because they deserve it.

Until that day arrives, however, taking action is the necessary course.

Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett are the authors of The New Soft War on Women: How the Myth of Female Ascendance is Hurting Women, Men -- and Our Economy. (Tarcher/Penguin)