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In our research on gender in the work place several HRD’s told us that they knew ratings of female employees were harsher than for males.


Bias in performance reviews

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You are on your journey and you get a bit lost. You stop a couple to ask for directions.
One of the pair says “Head north and the take a left going east. After 2.8 miles turn north east and keep going until the road divides. Go west. It’s on the right hand said about half a mile.”

The other half of the couple says: “That’s no good you are never going to remember all that east /west stuff. Here’s what you do. Turn around and head straight down the road until you come to the Pub the George and Falcon, its painted blue you can’t miss it. Take a left there. After quite a way you will come to a row of shops, just 5-6 of them between the bakers and the butcher’s shops turn left. the road goes up a steep hill and at the crown of the hill it divides. Take the right-hand folk. – you will see a house with a red gate – as you take the right folk. Where you want is on the right and has blue fencing just before it. If you reach the school you have gone too far.”

Feeling sure you now won’t get lost you turn around…

Answer a few questions. Why are these directions so different? Which set was given by a woman and which by a man? Which style of direction would you have given and which will ensure the driver gets where they need to go? Oh, and was the driver a male or female?

What we have here is an example of gender diversity and gender stereotyping. And this is just what happens when a manager comes to rate the performance of their team. If they are like them, of the same gender they are much more likely to understand how they describe and achieve their performance. If they are of a different gender it may not be so easy.

Marcus Buckingham as done extensive research on this, the technical term is the idiosyncratic rater effect. His research shows the as much of 54% of the bases for a performance evaluation (rating in the case of the research) is based on what the manager things: how important they think the quality is and how they would carry out the behaviour or task themselves. The rating is more revealing of the manager than the performance of the employee. When we add the whole issue of gender into this its gets more complex and may be contributing to bias.

In our research on gender in the work place several HRD’s told us that they knew ratings of female employees were harsher than for males. Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio’s research bears this out too. In her findings using content analysis of individual annual performance reviews, she found that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback).

One reason is as we said above, managers evaluate people on how they would do the role rather than objective outcomes and whilst this impacts both men and women the gender stereotypes exacerbate the issues.

And subjective annual evaluations open the door to gender bias statements like “Jon is more confident and independent than Carol in handling clients” and confirmation bias “I knew Carol would struggle with that project”.

The way feedback is frames can be different for men and women. Think about these review examples, “Sarah seems to make herself small when she’s around the client, she needs to be more self-confident.” But a similar problem —­­ confidence in working with clients —­­ is described very differently when a man needs to change: “Jon needs to develop his natural people skills.”

And here where the reviewer highlighted the woman’s decision-making and time management while the same behaviour in a male colleague was seen as careful thoughtfulness: “Claire seems to freeze when facing tight deadlines to make decisions,” while “Matt seems hesitant in making decisions, yet he is able to work out multiple alternative solutions and consider them thoughtfully.” Subjective feedback like these creates double standards for women.

And whilst this is a problem for women it’s not much help to men (or the company) if they are overrated because of subjective biases.

The data from the research, mentioned above, also suggests that women get less constructive critical feedback and research from Stanford University, Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard, found that women receive vaguer feedback than men do.

Finally, several studies show that women’s performance was more likely to be attributed to characteristics such as luck rather than their abilities and skills. This means they do not receive due credit for their work.

What can be done?

Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio’s research with professional services firms suggests that the use of tailor-made, automated, real-time communication tools with instant feedback on employees’ performance from supervisors, colleagues, and clients can have dramatic results for women. Systems like Pay Compliment feedback tool allow for this type of feedback and have the added advantage that the employee can take their feedback with them when moving from one company to another – providing a history of their achievements.

Another benefit is that having more-frequent feedback gives opportunities to recognise different styles of leadership. As the work of Alice Eagly at Northwestern University has demonstrated, there are differences in leadership styles among gender. Her work, followed by other researchers, has revealed that women’s leadership styles are less hierarchical and more cooperative, inclusive, and collaborative than the typical male leadership style.

Women’s strengths, such as their collaborative and inclusive styles, are more easily recognised when feedback is coming from multiple sources. And this feedback often provides data on the effectiveness of leadership style in different contexts, many of which the manager might not normally have insight too.  In additions the manager reviewing all the feedback can see how various appraisers attach different weights to the same aspects of performance they experienced. The feedback also tends to be useful for developmental and assessment purposes being more accurate and gender-neutral.

These systems also provide advantages for managers. For example, they receive objective criteria to provide a comprehensive view of performance. Managers get details they have never had before: how constant employees’ performance is, how they grow over the course of the year (or the project cycle), how they respond to feedback over time, their weak and strong points, their network of feedback givers and to whom they give feedback. This tracks who has influence in the team, who is supportive of others and who is in touch with the work across the business unit.

In turn, managers learn the kind of support and exposure they need to provide each employee for optimal performance with supervisors, peers, subordinates, and clients.

Employees being reviewed gain as well: They have information on and can be evaluated for their actual performance and work relationships, not by their boss’s impressions. And the likelihood of women receiving subjective feedback in the form of negative personality-based criticism is significantly decreased with this approach.

Women also get information that facilitates self-management, because real-time reviews give examples of effective (or ineffective) behaviour and convey information on what the individual must start, stop, or continue doing.

So, if you are still wondering about the questions above. The stereotypes would say men never ask for directions so the driver must have been a woman and are more likely to rely on landmark cues for direction: “Turn right at the Crown and Goose pub.” Men are more likely to use abstract concepts in navigation: “Go east for a mile, then turn north.”  Directions in one form tend to be incomprehensible to people who prefer the other. Just like leadership style or work style in business.


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