TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Friday, April 14, 2017

Harvard Business Review:  How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews, And What To Do About It

Harvard Business Review LogoHarvard Business Review:  How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews, and What to Do About It, by Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio (Harvard Law School):

The annual performance review already has many strikes against it. Harried managers end up recalling high and low points on the fly; employees often get unclear direction.

Here’s another flaw: Women are shortchanged by these reviews. In my forthcoming book on gender bias in the workplace, cowritten with journalist Kim Kleman, we present scores of successful interventions I have used in large domestic and international professional services firms to level the playing field for women in appraisals and promotions, among other areas. One of my findings, using content analysis of individual annual performance reviews, shows that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback).

That’s because annual evaluations are often subjective, which opens the door to gender bias (“Tom is more comfortable and independent than Carolyn in handling the client’s concerns”) and confirmation bias (“I knew she’d struggle with that project”), among other things.

I found that these biases can lead to double standards, in that­­ a situation can get a positive or a negative spin, depending on gender. In one review I read, the manager noted, “Heidi seems to shrink when she’s around others, and especially around clients, she needs to be more self-confident.” But a similar problem —­­ confidence in working with clients —­­ was given a positive spin when a man was struggling with it: “Jim needs to develop his natural ability to work with people.” ...

The good news is that the performance appraisal system can be fixed. By using more-objective criteria, involving a broader group of reviewers, and adjusting the frequency of reviews, it is possible to remove subjective biases that creep in.

Specifically, my field experiments at professional services firms suggest that the use of tailor-made, automated, real-time communication tools with instant feedback on employees’ weekly performance from supervisors, colleagues, and clients can have dramatic results for women.

As opposed to the traditional annual feedback system, these instruments were designed to remove bias from answers (e.g., the language of feedback options is gender-neutral) and help the reviewers to provide constructive feedback. The order of requested feedback was given careful consideration in the instruments’ design, all in an effort to create a level playing field. ... 

Giving frequent feedback might sound like a lot of work, especially for large teams. It’s not. Feedback involves two to six reviewers per week, and takes each of them no more than 15 minutes.

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The author seems to posit that gender bias exists and then comes up with a cure - performing weekly reviews that use gender neutral language. Does this seem rational?

When I worked in corporate, I had 7 members of my tax team. Where could I find 2 to 6 reviewers who knew their work - let alone weekly. The two women in my group got the best reviews because they did the best work. After I left and a woman became head of tax both were encouraged to leave, i.e., driven from the company.

Also, I gave performance reviews to my people constantly - not once a year. I did have to train myself to give attaboys.

Anyone who has had a child (or dog) knows that your correct behavior immediately - not annually. This article leaves me at a complete loss.

Posted by: aircav65 | Apr 14, 2017 7:13:59 AM

Assuming there is an adequate sample size to actually come to this conclusion, does this address who is responsible for the disparity? I recall reading somewhere that in the corporate environment women are much harder on other female employees than men are.

Posted by: Lonnie | Apr 14, 2017 2:05:10 PM