Creating a coaching culture with the right mind-set
May 18, 2017
Bias in performance reviews
May 19, 2017

Is your leadership competency framework bias?

[hhab-author] [hhab-social]

Is your leadership competency framework describing gender bias requirements? Have you checked the language? Does your talent process favour the status quo?


We are in the middle of interviewing HRD’s, Diversity and Inclusion leads and senior leaders and very few of the people we ask have looked at their competency frameworks to see if the traits they require are stereotypically masculine.

A report by Annika Warren for Catalyst on ‘Cascading Gender biases, compounding effects: An Assessment of Talent Management Systems’ found that organisations’ leadership frameworks and talent management processes are designed in ways that both reflect and continue to support stereotypes. The result is, even today, they disadvantage women, creating a vicious cycle in which men continually dominate leadership positions. Based on an assessment of 110 talent management systems representing 19 industries, the data showed that talent management professionals and senior leaders collude, all be it inadvertently, to perpetuate gender gaps in senior leadership.

The report describes a vicious circle starting with senior leaders wanting frameworks and promotion criteria to be consistent with what they are comfortable with and that is stereotypical masculine descriptions of high potential and leadership. This need for comfort (this is the brain’s certainty bias at play) is further compounded by HR professionals who implement these wishes rather than challenging them and further fail to put in place enough checks and balances even where frameworks are de-biased because the informal processes which override the formal, mean bias decisions are made. For example:

  • Senior leaders favour candidates and definitions of high potential that mirror the traits of the current leadership team. Given most leadership teams are made up of men and most of those men behaviour in stereotypical ways expected of male leaders this effectively maintains the bias against women.
    In our research we asked the HR and business leaders interviewed if they explicitly check their leadership and other competency frameworks for bias. We have found only one so far who told us they did. This is in a population from major companies many of whom are using sophisticated software to de-bias recruitment advertisements.
  • Despite competency frameworks and talent processes being in place rarely do the explicit statements of what it takes to get promoted and be a leader match the implicit decision-making, which leaves employees looking to senior leader role models for cues. Most businesses have male-dominated senior leadership teams, which makes masculine norms more likely to be conveyed by role models. Not surprisingly, employees in most organisations perceive the masculine leadership traits being displayed as those most valued in the organisation.
  • +     The Catalyst research shows that when left to their own interpretations, women and men in leadership positions in the United States and Europe resort to gender stereotypes to define characteristics of effective leaders. This finding is consistent with the implicit bias tests mentioned in the our post on stereotypes. Stereotypes of leadership are so embedded even women and feminists define leadership using masculine traits.
  • The majority of talent managers evaluated their senior executives as primarily displaying stereotypically masculine characteristics and competencies: results driven, action oriented and problem solving were the top three characteristics chosen. The three most popular characteristics were all stereotypically masculine. The top stereotypically feminine characteristic was indicated by less than one-half of the talent managers that completed the online survey run by Catalyst.
  • Behaviours shown as stereotypically masculine: driving results, executing, being action-oriented, leading others, and solving problems – were found more frequently in talent management documents that focused on senior leadership positions than in other talent management documents.
  • Stereotypically masculine behaviours were used to describe and portray people with strong technical and analytical skills. The top descriptions were knowledgeable, problem-solver, sees the big picture, and critical thinker. Mathematical, intelligent, and detail-oriented were also used. All masculine descriptions. The implication of this is that when people perceive technical skills as stereotypically masculine, decision-makers run the risk of unconsciously assuming that women are less likely than men to possess such attributes. Thus, performance evaluations and project assignments may well disadvantaging women. Given promotion still requires technical proficiency in most companies this puts women at a disadvantage as they climb the ladder.
  • Whilst McKinsey found 93% of companies said they had clear criteria in performance evaluations only 57% of employees recognised this.
  • Research on performance feedback and evaluation finds women still have to outperform men and are criticised for having typical feminine leadership traits and if they have adopted typical masculine traits are also penalised. This has been called the Tightrope. There is also evidence that women receive more personal feedback and less feedback directed at performance improvement or career strategy.
  • And finally women are much less likely than men to receive sponsorship, where a senior mentor advocates for them, unless the organisation’s talent processes specifically pick and train mentors to support women. This sponsorship, other research found, tends to happen ‘naturally’ for men.

If you have views on this or feel you have a story to tell on how you have managed to de-bias your talent processes and leadership framework please do get in touch And if you wish to complete our survey on your experience of gender in the work place it will be open until the end of May. https://

We will happily send you a copy of the book Brain-savvy Wo+men once its published.


Comments are closed.