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The Dangerous Relationship Between Gender Bias and Performance Reviews

The Dangerous Relationship Between Gender Bias and Performance Reviews

Meet José and Sally. They do the same work, have the same amount of experience, report to the same manager and, unlikely as it may seem, have the exact same strengths and weaknesses as employees. You would think their performance reviews would be fairly similar, but think again.

Many studies show that gender has a significant influence on employee treatment and feedback during performance reviews. Unfortunately, these differences put women at a significant disadvantage for improvement, making them less likely to earn raises or promotions.

While many performance evaluation biases exist, gender bias is one of the most prevalent. We hope that by diving deeper into gender bias during performance reviews, we can help both managers and employees understand, identify, and combat the gender bias phenomenon.

Problem: Feedback is more subjective.

Critical feedback can help employees improve and overcome weaknesses. However, when that critical feedback becomes purely subjective, it stops being helpful. A series of studies conducted by Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio found that “women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback).”

What’s more, Cecchi-Dimeglio also found that subjective feedback creates a double standard that is often skewed negatively toward women and positively toward men. For instance, when both a male and female employee had problems being confident while working with clients, they were given very different feedback:

Feedback given to female employee: “Heidi seems to shrink when she’s around others, and especially around clients, she needs to be more self-confident.”

Feedback given to male employee: “Jim needs to develop his natural ability to work with people.”

Notice how the female employee “lacks confidence,” but the male employee simply needs to “develop a natural skill”?

One solution: Remove subjectivity.

Instead of asking multiple, ambiguous questions to rate employees’ performance or value to the organization, you can reduce subjectivity by asking specific questions with multiple-choice answers. For instance, ask “What would you do if José were offered a position somewhere else?” with options like:

-I would do whatever it took to keep José. He is incredibly valuable to our team.

-I would miss him and encourage him to stay.

-I would be relieved and could easily find a replacement.

While trying to remove subjectivity from reviews won’t banish gender bias in the workplace entirely, it can help managers rate employees more fairly. And fairer performance ratings lead to fairer perceptions and treatment of all employees.


Ready to build a better performance review system? Check out our Definitive Guide to Performance Management today!


Problem: Evaluations are vague.

Let’s bring back José and Sally. This time, we’re dropping both of them off alone on a remote mountain, deep in the woods with a task to find a specific location. We’ll give José a GPS, the exact coordinates, and a backpack filled with tools to get there. Sally will receive only the name of the location and an encouraging note that says, “We believe in you!” It’s safe to say that José will have an easier time navigating successfully, isn’t it?

While that example may seem ridiculous, it’s meant to show an extreme version of what happens in the workplace: women receive less specific and actionable feedback—the kind of feedback that’s crucial to success. One study found that both critical and positive feedback were more likely to be vague when given to women, leaving men with a “clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.”

Even more, their analysis showed that “reviews for women had vague praise more often than reviews for men (57 percent and 43 percent, respectively). Comments such as, ‘You had a great year’ populated many women’s reviews. In contrast, [the] analysis found that developmental feedback for men was more likely to be linked to business outcomes (60 percent for men versus 40 percent for women).”

One solution: Get specific with aligned goals.

Instead of jotting down whatever feedback comes to mind, encourage reviewers to spend some quality time devoted to giving specific, actionable feedback. Then, based on this feedback, managers should work with employees to set goals that align with company goals and objectives. For instance:

-Vague feedback: Sally had a great year.

-Specific feedback: Sally increased her sales by 30 percent this year. To help her improve even more this upcoming year, I would challenge her to continue to increase her sales while also focusing on providing exceptional client experiences.

-Aligned goal: Because our organization is focusing on increasing our client retention rate in 2018, Sally will focus on providing exceptional client experiences. She would like to increase her client retention rate by 25 percent.

Providing Sally with specific feedback gives her a better opportunity to grow. Helping her tie that specific, thoughtful feedback to the organization’s goals helps her see a clear path to becoming even more valuable to her organization.

Problem: A Lack of Trust.

Imagine you have to cross a deep gorge with sharp rocks and rushing water at the bottom. There’s a bridge over the gorge, but it’s missing boards and the suspension ropes are frayed and rotting. You clearly can’t trust the bridge, so if you decide to use it, you’re probably going to do so very cautiously.

Openness means encouraging honesty at every level.

Now imagine the bridge represents your relationship with your employer, and that crossing it is your performance review. In a BambooHR study, we found that 73 percent of men trust their companies to keep their honest feedback anonymous, while only 53 percent of women feel the same way. This may be the reason why men feel significantly more comfortable being honest in performance reviews (57 percent of men vs. 42 percent of women). 

Women also don’t believe their companies value their feedback: During performance reviews, more men than women feel they are heard “very well” (38 percent of men vs. 27 percent of women). A higher rate of men than women also claim they “always” or “often” see changes occur as a result of their feedback (48 percent of men vs. 32 percent of women).

If you thought your employer wouldn’t value your feedback or even keep it anonymous, you’d probably hesitate to provide any. But if your male coworkers didn’t feel the same way, they likely wouldn’t have the same reluctance. Just think of the imbalance created in actionable feedback if men trust the bridge and are willing to cross it, while women are hesitating on the other side. Without equal trust that crosses gender lines, organizations aren’t getting an accurate, honest picture of the employee experience.

One solution: An open culture.

How do you and your organization treat honest (and possibly painful) feedback from employees? If you get defensive, bury your head in the sand, or seek retribution, your employees won’t be honest. What’s more, they’ll take the cue to act similarly in the face of tough feedback. Instead, foster a culture of openness.

Openness means encouraging honesty at every level. It also means respecting and thoughtfully considering honest feedback when receiving it. When employees can provide open and honest feedback without fear of punishment, your organization and other employees will be able to identify issues and improve more effectively.

Squashing gender bias in the workplace will empower the women in your organization to offer their input more often and foster greater communication across your entire workforce.

Performance evaluation biases can lead to some significant disadvantages for women in the workplace. To help make performance reviews equally valuable for women as they are for men, create a process that discourages subjective feedback and encourages specific, actionable, and aligned goals. Also, make sure to encourage a culture of openness so that everyone feels comfortable being honest. When reviews are fair, workplaces are more fair. And creating fairer, more equal workplaces is a goal we should all have.

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