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Tackling Gender Bias in Performance Reviews

Tackling Gender Bias in Performance Reviews

Performance reviews have changed in nature over recent years, with the popular shift toward more regular, continuous feedback prevailing over outdated once-or-twice a year reviews.

Reviews give employees encouragement to perform well in the future. They give employees a sense of their position and value within the organization. Reviews present employees with an opportunity to consider their development and career goals and they give employees and employers the chance to discuss strengths and weaknesses in a constructive manner. This all serves to boost communication, heighten employee engagement and diminish staff turnover.

However, staff appraisals are not always as constructive or as objective as they should be. Employee appraisals are carried out by human beings, and as such they are prone to innate, unconscious biases. Mahzarin Banaji has discovered through a series of Implicit Association Tests that even people who believe themselves to be completely egalitarian still demonstrate unconscious bias based on preconceived stereotypes. Most of us are familiar with the halo and horns effect, which can be hard to eliminate, but gender discrimination in performance reviews is a bias that all too often goes ignored.

Unhelpful, stereotypical language

Recent research suggests that female employees tend to be assessed differently, which has a direct impact on the likelihood of promotion and advancement. The language used to describe employee characteristics, in particular, has attracted a serious amount of negative attention.

In a 2014 Fortune article, it was found that female performance reviews are far more likely to include critical feedback than their male counterparts. The study employed a linguist to analyze the word usage in performance reviews. The linguist found that behavior that was commonly regarded as 'confident' or 'assertive' in men was instead described as 'abrasive' when portrayed by women.

It was also found that critical feedback in performance reviews is highly geared toward suggestions for men, providing ideas as to how to develop particular skills. Women, on the other hand, were given more negative criticism without the more constructive element. Interestingly, the gender of the manager didn’t make a difference.

When displaying ‘leading’ behavior, women were often described using words such as ‘aggressive’, ‘bossy’, ‘strident’ and ‘abrasive’. In the study, the word ‘abrasive’ was used seventeen times to describe thirteen different women. Conversely, only the word ‘aggressive’ appeared in the male participant’s performance reviews, and it was used in a positive, encouraging way.

How gender bias impacts organizations and employees

Caroline Simard, the director of research at the Clayman Institute, states that ‘hidden biases’ such as these result in a “cumulative disadvantage over a woman’s career over time, resulting in lower access to key leadership positions and stretch assignments, advancement and pay.”

It should go without saying that this form of discouragement serves to damage the success of the organization as a whole. A company thrives when its employees feel engaged, enthusiastic and equal. Discrepancies between men and women where performance reviews are concerned will disincentivize female employees, and loyalty to the company itself will ultimately suffer as a result. Worryingly, gender discrimination doesn’t appear to be particularly important to certain organizations. In a 2015 study, only one-third of employees said that they believed it was a priority within their organization.

Overcoming gender bias in performance reviews

Beliefs and behaviors such those described in this article are not altered overnight, but there are certain steps that can be put in place to promote awareness and to help overcome gender bias in the long run.

Managers should be encouraged to use language that is objective and constructive rather than judgmental. Avoid emotive language at all times, while always giving employees the opportunity to respond, providing a balanced view of all situations.

Performance reviews should always be specific and consider performance against agreed personal objectives and organizational behaviors or values. This is a fairer, less subjective way of discussing and evaluating performance.

Another integral way of ensuring gender equality in the workplace is by introducing a means of providing anonymous feedback to management. For example, female employees may feel more inclined to report that they are less likely to be consulted on business decisions than men, if they don’t have to worry about personal repercussions.


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Stuart Hearn is CEO of Clear Review, a continuous performance management software company. He has been working in the HR sector for over 20 years, previously working for Sony Music Publishing and co-founding PlusHR. Stuart regularly shares resources and advice on effective performance management strategies and industry trends on LinkedIn.

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