Studies: Performance Reviews Are Biased Against Women

Criticism should be about performance not personality.



As December approaches, many companies will once again start the process of conducting annual performance reviews. Managers will tell employees what they did right and wrong throughout the year and offer advice for improvement. Then most workers will be given a 3 percent raise and sent on their way.

But for women, the performance reviews are more likely to hurt career advancement than help, studies say.

Researchers at Harvard University and Tel Aviv University found that — contrary to common belief — performance reviews don’t limit bias at the workplace. Instead they perpetuate it. After studying Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data from 816 businesses over 30 years, the researchers found that, as firms became more likely to implement review systems, women became less likely to hold management positions. (The findings are detailed in this Fortune article.)

Meanwhile a Stanford University study finds that men are three times more likely to hear feedback based on business outcomes, according to the Wall Street Journal. Women “received 2.5 times the amount of feedback men did about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as ‘your speaking style is off-putting,’ the study found,” according to the WSJ.

Then there’s a 2014 study by linguist Kieran Snyder, finding that roughly 59 percent of men got critical feedback in their reviews, compared to 88 percent of women. After analyzing 248 reviews from 28 companies, Snyder found that there’s one word that is repeatedly used in reviews to describe women, but never for men – “abrasive.”

For example, “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone,” Fast Company reported.

This phenomenon is called “The Double Bind.” Fast Company explains: “The double bind is the idea that if a women is too ‘nice’ at work or uses stereotypically feminine vocal characteristics she’ll be seen as too soft and won’t be taken seriously. On the flip side, if a woman is too assertive she’s seen as brusque and bitchy.”

Performance reviewers – males and females — have double standards for women and men because of unconscious bias, according to Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. It’s hard to eliminate the stereotypes for working women.

“We can’t stop it,” said Caroline Simard, director of the research at the Clayman Institute to Business Insider. “But if we diagnose how it plays out, we can come up with solutions.”

Performance reviews became popular in the 1960s. Managers used it to limit discriminations and bias when making decisions on salary, promotion and layoff. But the practice can backfire, as the studies show. In recent years some companies — Microsoft, Dell, Accenture, and others – abandoned performance reviews and replaced it with more frequent, ongoing feedback.

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