Love them or hate them, performance reviews are an annual staple in the majority of companies.

To ensure business success, most organisations have a performance evaluation process. This might include including goal-setting, performance measurement, regular performance feedback, self-evaluation, employee recognition and documentation of employee progress. Performance reviews are supposed to be objective with employees being rated against a scale to ensure fairness. However, performance reviews are subjective, and this opens the door to gender bias.

Gender bias, by definition, is the unfair differences in the way a person is treated because of their gender.

We have seen many a business case telling us the benefits of a diverse leadership team; improved financial performance, more creative and innovative teams, improvements in recruiting and retaining talent just to name a few.

We even have sex discrimination acts in force making it illegal to discriminate based on one’s gender.

So why is bias still at play and how does it affect women’s ability to progress in the workplace?

Everyone has biases. They develop over the course of our lifetime through our own experiences and exposure to messages and other influences. While bias will always be present, we can become more aware and conscious of our decisions and responses to situations.

But while bias is still at play, it will positively or negatively affect someone else or create an unfair advantage or disadvantage for others.

Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, a postdoctoral research fellow studying the effects of gender, culture and organizational behaviour on international strategic alliances found that biases can lead to double standards, in that a situation can get a positive or a negative spin, depending on gender.

As an example, she explains “in one review I read, the manager noted, ‘Heidi seems to shrink when she’s around others, and especially around clients, she needs to be more self-confident.’ But a similar problem – confidence in working with clients – was given a positive spin when a man was struggling with it: ‘Jim needs to develop his natural ability to work with people.’

In another pair of reviews, the reviewer highlighted the woman’s ‘analysis paralysis,’ while the same behaviour in a male colleague was seen as careful thoughtfulness: ‘Simone seems paralyzed and confused when facing tight deadlines to make decisions,’ while ‘Cameron seems hesitant in making decisions, yet he is able to work out multiple alternative solutions and determined the most suitable one.’

Double standards like these clearly affect women’s opportunities for advancement.”

Researchers from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research reviewed hundreds of performance reviews from four unnamed technology and professional services companies. The results of their study showed that women and men receive performance feedback at work that align with gender stereotypes and managers use substantially different language to describe their male and female employees. Some of the key findings include:

  • Women’s evaluations contain nearly twice as much language about their communal or nurturing style (e.g. “helpful” or “dedicated.”)
  • Managers are nearly seven times more likely to tell their male employees that their communication style is too soft. Women, on the other hand, receive 2.5 times as much feedback related to their aggressive communication style.
  • Men are more than three times more likely to hear feedback related to a general business outcome.
  • Women’s evaluations contain 2.39 times the amount of references to team accomplishments, as opposed to individual ones.
  • Men hear nearly twice as many references to their technical expertise and their vision.

Over time, the effects of bias can impact a woman’s career progression, contribute to the gender pay gap and influence the number of women represented in leadership.

To create a level playing field, the performance appraisal system needs to be transformed.

According to McKinsey & Company’s 2019 Women in the Workplace report, there are several ways in which the hiring and performance review system needs to change to ensure an objective and level playing field. Relating specifically to appraisals, two key drivers are change include:

1. Put employees involved in the performance review process through unconscious bias training

“Unconscious bias can play a large role in determining who is hired, promoted, or left behind. Companies are less likely to provide unconscious bias training for employees who participate in entry-level performance reviews than senior-level reviews but mitigating bias at this stage is particularly important. Candidates tend to have shorter track records early in their careers, and evaluators may make unfair, gendered assumptions about their future potential. There is also compelling evidence that this training works: In companies with smaller gender disparities in representation, half of employees received unconscious bias training in the past year, compared to only a quarter of employees in companies that aren’t making progress closing these gaps.”

2. Establish clear evaluation criteria

“Companies need to make sure they have the right processes in place to prevent bias from creeping into hiring and reviews. This means establishing clear evaluation criteria before the review process begins. Evaluation tools should also be easy to use and designed to gather objective, measurable input. For example, a rating scale is generally more effective than an open-ended assessment.”

While biases may be difficult to overcome, we can become more aware about the bias that impacts the system we use. And with that awareness, we can create real change to impact the progression of women’s careers.

To make your workplace more inclusive, download the Women in Gaming & Hospitality Unconscious Bias Learning Resource to #checkyourbias.