Unless leaders are skilful in recognising and challenging unconscious bias, performance reviews and promotion assessments are often not as objective as we’d like to think.
These assessments, in turn, determine remuneration and promotion, so it’s worth paying close attention to language and evidence shared in the performance review.
Numerous studies have shown the impacts of unconscious gender bias on performance reviews. One recent study reported in Harvard Business Review of more than 80,000 evaluations in a military leadership setting found no gender differences in objective measures (such as fitness and grades) but that in subjective evaluations, managers used more positive words to describe men in performance reviews and more negative ones to describe women.
Other studies have found the word ‘abrasive’ is a common adjective reserved for women during performance reviews. That’s related to the double-bind that occurs when women emphasise their competence, leading them to be perceived as cold and unlikable.
On the other hand, when women are perceived as warm, collaborative and communal, they’re less likely to be perceived as competent and therefore leadership potential. Stanford University academics found that women are also more likely to receive vague feedback not connected to objectives or business outcomes, which limits their opportunities for growth and promotion to leadership.
When women are perceived as warm, collaborative and communal, they’re less likely to be perceived as competent and therefore leadership potential.
How does unconscious gender bias impact assessment of performance and potential?
These are some common gender biases identified by Binna Kandola and Jo Kandola in their book, The Invention of Difference: gender bias at work.
- Where women are in a minority, their behaviour will be under greater scrutiny. This can lead to more negative evaluations
- Ambivalent sexism may lead to women receiving more praise but less money than their male counterparts
- The gender of the people currently doing the role will influence who is seen as most suitable for it
- Part-time workers are less likely to receive an appraisal
- Women’s success is more likely to be attributed to some external factors, but men’s will more likely to be attributed to their skill or personality
- When being considered for a leadership role, more evidence will be sought for the suitability of female candidates
- Part-time and other forms of flexible working will be viewed with suspicion and candidates will be treated warily
So how can we avoid unconscious bias when assessing performance?
- Set clear, specific and measurable key performance indicators.
- Question potential filters – Are you delivering feedback that’s comfortable rather than what’s important? Are you relying on your own perception? Have you sought feedback from other stakeholders?
- Give honest feedback in a constructive way – avoid stereotypical comments or assumptions.
- Once all performance reviews are complete for your team, review the ratings to ensure they are free from bias, fair and equitable. Check to see where the ratings fall by gender, and for those who work flexibly and ask yourself if you have assessed their performance fairly.
- Engage an expert to conduct a real time bias review. We often join leadership team meetings and call out any gender and cultural biases that may emerge in the discussion, as well as more general cognitive biases such as confirmation bias and priming. Depending on the context, we’ll ask questions, challenge assumptions respectfully during the meeting, and/or provide feedback after the group conversation on a 1-on-1 basis.
Some tips to avoid unconscious bias when assessing remuneration
- Provide transparent criteria on what will be rewarded
- Conduct pay equity audits regularly
- Be sure to continue remuneration reviews for employees on parental leave
To achieve more diverse and inclusive workplaces, it’s so important to remain alert to the impact of gender bias on our workplace policies and practices. As Binna and Jo Kandola explain in their book:
‘The reason why there are so few women in leadership roles in so many of our organisations is not because of different styles, ambitions or talent. It is because we expect leaders to be men. This expectation drives a whole series of behaviours, from the way we develop leadership criteria to the way we view potential.’