Awareness of gender bias in performance reviews is the first step to mitigating and eliminating this harmful phenomenon. Gender bias in performance reviews can prevent your company from recognizing and benefiting from skilled and talented employees, affecting your bottom line. Learn about common ways gender bias shows up in performance reviews, how this hurts gender equality, and ways to structure performance appraisal to avoid bias.

Gender Bias In Performance Reviews

Gender bias in performance reviews cuts both ways. It can affect both male and female employees and can be perpetrated by both male and female leaders.

The most common example of gender bias concerns leadership skills, specifically assertiveness. A man who works collaboratively with others may be perceived as incapable of holding a leadership position, while a woman who is assertive may be perceived as aggressive.

Over time, the human brain forms associations between gender and other qualities. These associations are informed by the environment we developed in, including family, school, and societal settings.

A gender bias doesn’t necessarily reflect someone’s true feelings about gender. Gender bias is simply a product of existing in society over a certain period of time and being exposed to the prevalent theories and depictions of people based on their gender.

How Performance Evaluations Hurt Gender Equality

Biased performance evaluations hurt gender equality in the workplace in both the short and long term.

In the short term, non-standardized, open-box reviews can leave employees feeling frustrated and demotivated. The perception that performance is judged partially on factors out of the employee’s control can lead to decreased engagement and efficiency.

Long-term, ineffective performance evaluations keep employees trapped, with no clear path to advancement or improvement. You may miss out on top talent or promising leaders due to a performance review process that fails to address gender bias in job evaluation.

Employees who receive vague or undeservedly critical evaluations are at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiating increased compensation. They may be passed over for opportunities to lead based on the content of erroneous, gender-biased job reviews. Over time, this can lead to significant discrepancies in title and compensation.

Maintaining a reputation as a fair and unbiased workplace is critical to attracting top talent. A perceived trend of biased performance appraisals could damage your reputation and should be carefully avoided.

How to Avoid Bias In Performance Appraisal

You can avoid bias in the performance review process by recognizing that managers are human. The human brain is prone to biases – mental shortcuts that help streamline decision-making. Biases about gender are inaccurate and unhelpful, but very prevalent. Expect evaluators to enter the process with some form of unconscious bias, and design the appraisal process to mitigate this tendency.

1. Standardize evaluation tools.

Develop or purchase an evaluation tool that meets your needs, and train evaluators to use it properly. Discourage managers from conducting open-ended evaluations. Lack of clarity in the evaluation process creates gaps that gender bias can slip through, as managers may ask different questions to male and female employees without realizing it.

2. Provide thorough training and ample time to evaluators.

Too often, performance evaluations are just one more thing on the list in a busy day. Poorly trained managers flounder and risk introducing significant variance in the way employees are reviewed. Not only is this unfair, but it’s also inefficient. Well-trained managers conduct fair performance evaluations and provide employees with a path to success that they can implement without further oversight.

3. Gather performance metrics.

A great way to remove gender bias in performance evaluation is to look at performance metrics first. If it’s possible to anonymize the data, this can be an eye-opening exercise. Your top performers may not be who you think they are.

4. Consider including 360-degree feedback.

Managers don’t see everything. The way an employee interacts with clients and other team members is also incredibly valuable when it comes time to evaluate their job performance. While you may not base compensation or other rewards on the feedback of colleagues, it can help reveal blind spots and encourage a fairer evaluation of your employees.

5. Don’t be vague.

Both men and women are capable of handling and implementing critical feedback, and using performance evaluations to modify behavior and meet their goals. Male employees are frequently given clear, actionable feedback about what isn’t working and what to do differently. Women are often expected to read between the lines, or given vague feedback to avoid the perception of gender bias in performance reviews. Not only is this ineffective, but it also hurts female employees by denying them a clear path for improvement and career progression.

Gender Differences in Feedback

The gender bias in performance reviews extends all the way to the feedback you give your employees. There are three types of feedback that commonly make up a performance evaluation.

  • Positive feedback indicates what the employee is doing well.
  • Negative objective feedback concerns areas where the employee failed to meet a clearly delineated expectation, such as a sales goal.
  • Negative subjective feedback is where performance bias based on gender can inadvertently sneak in. Employers should avoid giving negative feedback that isn’t backed up by examples. Comparing employees is also another pitfall to avoid. Measure each employee against clearly defined and agreed-upon goals. Provide objective feedback on their progress

Studies of performance evaluations show that women receive up to 1.4x more negative subjective feedback than men. Negative subjective feedback is particularly frustrating to employees, as there is no clear path to improvement. Employees may understandably become demotivated and disengaged if they feel their evaluation was unfair or unclear.

Feedback should be based on data and backed up by concrete examples. It should include an explanation of why the employee’s behavior was ineffective. Constructive feedback involves not just identifying a problem, but also moving towards a solution. Managers should be prepared to contribute ideas for correcting the deficiency.

Feedback should be a two-way street. Provide an anonymous feedback channel to your employees, such as an online form or suggestion box. This allows you to receive their input without triggering gender bias and affecting the way the feedback is received.