Watch out for gender bias in appraisals

Although the contribution of women and men has changed in the organisational structure, and so have performance reviews, the gender gap still remains and employee appraisals are not always objective or constructive. Since people conduct performance reviews, and not machines, there is always a chance of preconceived ideas and stereotypes influencing the feedback given. Recent studies have found that women are evaluated differently at work than men and performance reviews for women are punctuated with stereotypical language.

A research by Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research found that managers are more likely to critique female employees for coming out too strong with their aggressive communication styles. Also, their accomplishments are more likely to be considered as the result of teamwork, rather than individual efforts, unlike male employees.

Words like ‘driven’, ‘tackle’ and ‘innovate’ are used more frequently for men in their feedback, and their evaluations are based more on the technical expertise and Key Result Areas met. Further, a 2014 Fortune article revealed that performance reviews for women employees are likely to have more critical feedback as compared to men.

The study, undertaken with the help of a linguist also found that similar behaviour for men and women was described in very different ways. Behaviour that was regarded as ‘confident’ or ‘assertive’ in men was defined as ‘abrasive’ when shown by women.

Negative comments

Performance reviews for women reference teamwork at least 2.4 times more than individual effort. This may come from a generalised perception that women aren’t as comfortable as men are in claiming credit and that women are happier being ‘supportive’ and ‘helpful’. Hence, when women are assertive and display leadership, they are often described using words like ‘bossy’ and ‘aggressive’.

The study noted that the word ‘abrasive’ was used seventeen times to describe thirteen different women. On the other hand, performance reviews for men only had the word ‘aggressive’, that too in a positive and encouraging manner. Additionally, it was noted that critical feedback in performance reviews included suggestions for men to develop their skills, while women on the other hand, received more negative criticism and not many constructive suggestions for development.

Despite such glaring bias, times are, nevertheless, changing. Employers are slowly realising the importance of diverse personalities, ideas, opinions and thinking styles in an organisation’s success. Businesses must, therefore, focus on attracting and retaining the best talent, regardless of gender to strengthen their competitive position in the long run. There have been several studies and researches that reiterate the fact that reducing the gender gap helps facilitate growth and development, across countries and organisations. Countries with greater gender equality witness better economic growth and companies with more women leaders perform better. Promoting and maintaining gender diversity helps retain employees and reduces cost of turnover and costs related to new recruitment.

Five-point strategy

To ensure talent is recognised regardless of gender, organisations can start with the following:

* During promotions and appraisals, blind performance reviews can be conducted and HR teams can be made to redraft résumés to remove any indication of the applicant’s gender.

This will ensure that the appraisal is treated in a gender-neutral way.

* Open-ended questions in evaluation forms can be avoided or kept to a minimum. The forms can be redrafted to be more objective, focusing on job-related competencies and skills, with very little scope for evaluators to make personal comments on the potential or personality of employees. Evaluators must state factual examples of behaviour to validate their feedback.

* Slow thinking can be encouraged to avoid any unconscious bias creeping in. Performance reviews require thoughtful and logical feedback focused on the results or output of employees, not their gender. Reviews may be done collectively by both male and female evaluators to give a collective feedback.

* There may be joint team evaluations rather than separate evaluations, so that comparative assessments (slow thinking) can be utilised. Also, to avoid skewed reviews, periodic assessments can be done. Only the performance during the appraisal period should be considered.

* The completed evaluations can be reviewed by a strategically formed team which is totally independent, formally trained and equipped but also, unaware of the review patterns. Their assessments will help in eliminating any inconsistency, bias or subjectivity in the evaluations. Gender equality in the organisation strengthens the long-term reputation of the company. Moreover, besides reducing cost of attrition and promoting leadership in women, it just makes sense as a good business decision for the company more than anything else.

(Sudeshna Datta is Co-founder and Executive Vice-President at Absolutdata.)

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Printable version | Jun 18, 2021 7:00:24 PM |

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