5 Ways to Fight Gender Bias in Performance Reviews

The percentages of female employees working at major tech companies are pretty dismal.

It’s 32 percent at Facebook Inc., 31 percent at Apple Inc., 30 percent at Twitter Inc.and Google Inc., and 24 percent at IntelCorp. The disparity between men and women is even greater when aggregating for women working in technical positions.

Companies have been trying to reverse this trend by implementing workplace child care facilities, equal maternity and paternity options, and other top down policies. But while CEOs are trying to make it easier for women to stay and prosper, many are leaving because of gender bias. Ellen Pao’s unsuccessful sexual harassment lawsuit against Kleiner Perkins, and her subsequent departure from Reddit this year, has significantly raised the profile of the issue.

Eliminating discrimination is a top priority for organizations outside the tech industry as well. Companies lose out when they can’t make full use of potential top performers and are exposed to lawsuits, greatly damaging their reputations. However, discrimination in feedback and performance reviews continues to block women’s advancement.

Despite many CEOs’ intentions to prioritize gender equality, McKinsey & Co.’s 2015 Women in the Workplace study revealed only one-third of employees surveyed believe gender diversity is a top priority for their direct manager. What’s more, the same study stated that while 70 percent of men view gender diversity as important, only 12 percent believe women have fewer opportunities for advancement, and 13 percent of men see gender diversity programs as a hurdle to their own advancement.

Before assuming these statistics represent overtly sexist test subjects, consider: We are all subject to subconscious biases. Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has dedicated her life’s research to better understanding our unconscious biases by coming up with a series of Implicit Association Tests. Through this testing, she concluded that even respondents who claim to hold egalitarian beliefs still demonstrate biases in their answers. This is due to our brain’s natural tendency to make connections and place people into groups based on preconceived stereotypes.

As the gateway to advancement, gender discrimination in annual performance reviews may be the main factor reinforcing your company’s glass ceiling. Kieran Snyder’s 2014 studyof tech industry performance reviews found that women were significantly more likely to receive critical feedback. They also received more critical feedback based on personality traits than men. For example, while men may be considered confident and assertive, the same behavior in a female peer would be considered abrasive. Common words used in critical reviews of women included: abrasive, bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional and irrational. Men were only occasionally described as aggressive.

While analyzing performance reviews, Stanford University’s Claymen Institute for Gender Research found the language used for both genders conforms to stereotypes of women being more adept in supporting roles and men being more independent. While women were given constructive feedback for using communication perceived as aggressive, they were also found to be ‘supportive,’ ‘collaborative’ and ‘helpful’ more often than men. Meanwhile, men were twice as likely to receive feedback based on their technical expertise. These assumptions result in women and men being put on different career paths, with men being favored for leadership positions.  

Follow these steps to promote awareness and overcome gender bias in the workplace:

  1. Help managers to confront implicit biases. Diversity training is a great idea if given effectively. Many managers tend to see it as a formality. The tricky part about implicit bias is most people assume they’re not at risk of discriminating against their employees. But they must understand that we’re all subject to unconscious stereotyping if they’re to overcome it.
  2. Be conscious of language used. Once managers have accepted the possibility of unconscious bias, give them tools to deliver feedback fairly and effectively. For example, address managers’ tendency to give women feedback based on judgments rather than facts. Teach managers to stick to facts and behaviors when giving constructive feedback. It’s also essential they give the other person a chance to respond, enabling a more balanced view of the situation. They should avoid using adjectives like: abrasive, bossy or emotional. Use verbs over adjectives to help ensure feedback is objective.
  3. Bring more people into the review process with 360-degree reviews. Having more peoplein the review process gives a more complete picture of an employee’s performance and helps to identify and prevent bias. Allowing employees to seek feedback from other sources can also encourage new female hires to seek out more senior-level women for guidance on professional development, encouragement and advice.
  4. Have a mechanism in place for employees to give anonymous feedback to managers. This will help managers correct unintended biases. For example, in the Women in the Workplace study, the women surveyed reported they were less likely to be consulted on important decisions than their male counterparts. If female employees have the opportunity to point out possible unintentional biases, managers will have the opportunity to identify and correct their behavior.
  5. Help employees to easily track past feedback. Easy access to performance data allows employees to track progress and compare feedback received, making it easier to report when they are not receiving equal access to promotions or development opportunities. Companies can use this data to identify managers who are blocking women from advancing. Employees also can easily demonstrate when they have alerted their manager to a situation, and they didn’t act to remedy the situation.

Steffen Maier is co-founder of Impraise,a web-based and mobile solution for actionable, timely feedback at work. Comment below or email editor@diversity-executive.com.