How Gender Bias Affects Your Performance Reviews

Todd and Sarah are co-workers with the same title and duties.

They perform at the same level. Numbers prove that. Their boss feels they both need to improve how they interact with clients.

In Todd’s annual review, the boss notes, “Todd needs to exercise his natural ability to connect with people, especially key clients.”

In Sara’s annual review, the boss notes, “Sarah seems to clam up with she’s with new clients. She needs to be more confident.”

See the difference?

It’s subtle, but it’s serious.

New research shows you – and all women – go into performance reviews at a disadvantage to men.

Flaws existed, getting worse

You’ve probably already felt there are flaws in the annual performance review (for example, they aren’t frequent enough, are too formal and involve a dated, rigid process).

The problems worsen for women.Business woman versus man corporate ladder career concept vector illustration

How? Performance reviews are partly, if not mostly, subjective – focused more on what your boss thinks about your work than on the numbers or quality you produce.

That opens the door for gender bias, whether it’s once a year, quarter or week.

Here are the hard facts you need to know. Researcher Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio and author Kim Kleman found that gender bias taints performance reviews like this:

  • Women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback
  • Women get less constructive critical feedback than men, and
  • Women’s performance is more likely attributed to characteristics (such as “committed,” “action-oriented” and “autonomous”) rather than actual skills and abilities.

Where the problem starts and goes

If yours is like most organizations, you still use performance reviews (even though they aren’t the most effective way to evaluate and improve performance). And you’ve probably experienced it: Bosses end up recalling high and low points in an over-extended period, then give unclear direction on where to go next.

Consider these two real-life situations the researchers uncovered:

  • Similar to our opening example, two employees had trouble working with customers. For the female employee, the boss noted, “Heidi seems to shrink when she’s around others and especially around clients; she needs to be more self-confident.” For the male employee, the boss noted, “Jim needs to develop his natural ability to work with people.”
  • In another situation, two employees were overwhelmed by required work. For the female employee, the boss characterized it as “analysis paralysis” and noted, “Simone seems paralyzed and confused when facing tight deadlines to make decisions.” For the male employee, the boss characterized it as “careful thoughtfulness,” and noted, “Cameron seems hesitant in making decisions, yet he is able to work out multiple alternative solutions and determine the most suitable one.”

How to fix it

The performance review process can evolve to eliminate much of any existing gender bias. The more it moves away from the traditional annual performance review to more effective strategies such as crowdsource feedback and ratingless appraisals, the more likely that will happen.

Here are five tips from the researchers to bring gender equality to performance reviews – whether you’re the one being reviewed or giving the review.

  1. Involve a broader group of reviewers. “Crowdsourced” feedback lets colleagues and other leaders chime in privately with their thoughts on an internal social platform. A less formal approach may include asking for and receiving feedback from the people who work closest with the person who’s being reviewed. Have them answer the same performance-related questions to get a broader view of the work. Ideally, get three to six reviewers involved.
  2. Adjust the frequency of feedback. Many companies are moving to quarterly reviews. They’re shorter and increasingly aided by automated tools that allow supervisors, colleagues and even clients to give feedback at their convenience. Then the boss doing the review can consider more relevant information and diversified viewpoints when looking at overall performance.
  3. Go for more specific feedback. Researchers found that women generally get vaguer feedback than men. When you’re being reviewed, ask for examples of specific incidents of behaviors that your boss refers to. If you’re giving the review, be prepared with the same – specific examples, places and times of behaviors that you might refer to vaguely as “a bad attitude” or “lack of confidence.”
  4. Use an appraisal scale. It should be as specific to the role as possible and include the major responsibilities. For instance, you can list specific job duties, and have your grasp of them appraised on a scale of 1 (Inefficient) to 5 (Mastered). Then, as other people review your work (or you’re involved in the review of someone else’s work), you have a qualitative tool to analyze performance. Based on feedback, the scale can help you identify what you (or your employee) should start doing, stop doing or develop.
  5. Change how appraisals are viewed. Most performance appraisals are a look back at what people did or didn’t do, rather than a stepping stone to what’s next. Move toward changing the process to one that’s mostly about what you want to achieve next. When the focus of an appraisal is on what’s ahead – and using what’s been measured and accomplished as a base line for growth — it’s less likely gender bias can creep in.