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How To Design Performance Reviews That Don’t Fail Women

For starters, let’s stop evaluating “leadership style.”

How To Design Performance Reviews That Don’t Fail Women
[Photo: jacoblund/iStock]

“You women find it more difficult toward your path to directorship. You are naturally consensus builders. We are looking for a specific profile.”

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That’s what the director of another department once told me after blocking my promotion. I was shattered. I thought the promotion was in the bag; my boss had told me so. I had crushed my numbers. The clients loved me. My VP and team had signed off. But when the director argued against what he saw as my “profile”–and then pinned that to my gender–well, the opportunity vanished.

Until then, I admit that I’d quietly believed gender bias was basically a non-issue, at least where my own career was concerned. But losing out on that promotion led me to finally face facts, and dig into the research–which shows, for example, that both men and women believe men are more likely to possess the greater share of leadership skills. Yet when that same 2012 study analyzed over 7,000 leaders’ effectiveness scores, gender made no difference.

And of course it didn’t. But perception is everything. And according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, we’re still a long way off from curbing the biased perceptions that reap fewer rewards for women who perform just well as–if not better than–their male colleagues. Rethinking how we evaluate performance, though, is a great place to start.


Related: Six Companies That Are Redefining Performance Management


1. Stop Judging Employees’ Leadership Styles

Undeniably, we need to hire and reward employees who contribute to their companies’ cultures as their bottom lines. How you do things matters. But when style and “executive presence” become key criteria for advancement, it’s bad news for women.

It’s been called the “double bind”: when women leaders behave more femininely, they’re perceived as weak, insecure, and ineffective; if they act more masculinely, they’re unlikable, abrasive, or too bossy. When my coaching clients get critical feedback about their leadership styles–whether in formal annual reviews or sporadically–I tell them to request evidence that their style has a negative effect on their job or the team. Most of the time, the evaluators realize that the employee’s style is precisely what makes them successful–whether or not they personally consider it too weak or too strong.

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Similarly, when women are judged to be too forceful or “pushy” in the workplace, it’s always smart to ask, “Compared to whom?” Women are often penalized when they exhibit the same behaviors as their male colleagues. Rather than denying outright that the feedback is valid or claiming it’s sexist (which, of course, it might very well be), request a baseline of comparison. This can sometimes nudge the conversation past subjective assessments of “style” toward substantive outcomes.


Related: Ask Yourself These 5 Questions Before Deciding On A Leadership Style


2. Use Evaluators Who Know Their Work Firsthand

Some companies have tried increasing meritocracy by asking leadership committees to judge employees’ performance. This takes the final say over rankings and promotion decisions out of managers’ hands. But there are risks to giving more power to people with little exposure to the employee’s work. As Harvard Business Review recently reported, research suggests that people tend to succumb to gender bias when they have limited information. Wherever there’s uncertainty about somebody’s work or skills, stereotypes rush in to fill the gap.

One potential solution? Have the people with firsthand knowledge of the employee’s work judge their performance. It needn’t be just one person or just the employee’s direct manager. It could include their boss as well as their clients or their peers. The point is simply to tap into folks who are actually  in the know, and increase the correlation between good work and getting recognized for it.


Related: The One Word Men Never See In Their Performance Reviews


3. Judge Employees In Small Groups

A 2012 Harvard study suggests that evaluating job candidates who are pooled into groups before assessing them individually can boost objectivity. Why not try a similar principle for employees’ performance? When we evaluate individuals in isolation, we tend to fall back on gendered heuristics–like, for instance, the tired yet persistent fallacy that women are weak in quantitative roles.

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Still, while judging employees in small groups can reduce gender bias, it’s likely to backfire if the group is too big, for largely the same reason as above: too many people means too much information to hold in mind at once, meaning more reliance on stereotyping. The solution is simple: Review employees in groups that are small enough for evaluators to know a lot about each person and their work.

The Awareness Issue

There’s probably discrimination happening in your company that you just aren’t aware of–much the way I wasn’t until I confronted it personally. Some bias is unconscious, some is conscious and simply unexpressed, and much is unreported.

The fact is that women typically pay real penalties for talking about discrimination, a reality that the #MeToo movement is beginning to draw out into the open. As a society, we still don’t like women defending themselves or requesting that they get more. Knowingly or not, many of us still prefer women to appear selfless. That makes it difficult to prove wrongdoing even when women do get a fair hearing; everything they say sounds self-serving.

What’s worse, a lot of women will never know they’re victims of discrimination. They’ll be told that they progressed more slowly because they simply weren’t good enough. And they’ll believe it.

In my case, the fact that I didn’t get promoted compelled me to reflect on my goals and my definition of success–and how others might see those things, including through biased lenses. In the years that followed, I took a more fulfilling path than I would have considered otherwise. In that sense, I was lucky.


Caterina Kostoula is an executive coach and global business leader at Google. You can download Caterina’s free balance and self-care toolkit for reducing stress and follow her on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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