How Performance Reviews are Sabotaging Women’s Careers 

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Performance reviews serve as a crucial checkpoint in helping individuals along their career trajectories. However, while they are supposed to be objective there is pervasive issue in the UK which detrimentally impacts women in the workplace. These performance reviews serve as a stealthy saboteur which perpetrates the gender disparities and impeding women’s career advancements.  

The Likability Penalty

One of the most insidious biases that women face in their performance reviews is the likability penalty. The likability penalty was coined by Sheryl Sandberg, Facebooks chief Operating Officer and founder of the Lean in Foundation. She found that leadership roles require assertiveness, decisiveness, passion, self-confidence, and proactivity which are viewed as positive attributes in a male leader but are often viewed less favourably when demonstrated by women in leadership roles.  

Frequently used words used in critical reviews of women included: Abrasive, bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional, and irrational. Whereas the men would only be critically described as ‘aggressive.’ These negative characteristics are used to tone it down in the workplace however men who display similar traits of aggressiveness and abrasiveness are praised for their assertiveness in the workforce. This double standard not only undermines women’s confidence but also sabotages their professional growth.  

When conducting performance reviews managers should be aware of how certain traits are being perceived and if these are being viewed as negative or positive when demonstrated by men or women. This further extends past performance reviews to the recruitment process where hiring manager should be aware, or their job descriptions and interview questions may have gender biases. Should an ‘alpha’ approach be valued higher than someone who is nurturing or compassionate? To make sure that a workplace is diverse and inclusive is not just hiring the right people but also on who is offered promotions or pay rises.  

Managers often unconsciously evaluate employees through the lens of gender stereotypes, leading to skewed assessments. Research by defined allow found that performance review processes which are poorly defined allow for gender biases to be at the forefront of the evaluations. It was found that manager who do not have defined process or unclear criteria with unmeasurable expectations end up drawing on cultural ideas of how various kinds of people should behave.  

Shelly J. Correll in a research piece for the Harvard Business Review stated: “While exhibiting competence and confidence does not hurt female professionals, openly engaging in confrontations, or pursuing positions of power evoke negative reactions from supervisors. These behaviours can lead to critiques designed to get women to fall in line with gender norms, which is known as gender policing.”  

Women may find themselves overlooked for promotions or pay rises simply due to them not conforming to the traditional expectations of leadership and assertiveness or due to partaking in behaviours that are viewed as to masculine meaning that either way they are unable to win. This creates a cycle wherein women are denied opportunities for advancement and further creates a gender gap. According to a study by McKinsey & Company in 2022 only 48% of women say they know how to navigate their organisations promotion process compared to 57% of men. This process needs to be made clear to both managers and employees so that performance reviews are offering value and opportunity for career growth. 

Find out more about gender pay gap reporting  

Gender Bias in the Workplace

Gender bias in workplaces is not straightforward and can be split into a few various categories such as experience bias and proximity bias. 

 When it comes to experience bias it can be seen that men often chose work that is easier to recognise, spending time on highly visible external tasks such as speaking at conferences. These tasks are straightforward to review due to short-term success. While women often spend time on less visible internal tasks, such as helping projects get back on track which have longer timelines and were harder to evaluate. These two different choices then create experience bias with those who have spoken at an event it is easy to understand the benefit to the company whereas those who are doing long term but less visible tasks. Both of these types of work are beneficial to the organisation and they both need to be considered during performance reviews through a structured system.  

Proximity bias can also negatively affect women in the workplace when it comes to performance reviews. With more women WFH or hybrid working due to other responsibilities and men more likely to go into the office there is often a tendency for leadership to see the office as a better candidate for promotions and career progression due to them being seen more frequently. It has been found that those who work in office will receive higher performance reviews than those that do not due to unfair and sometimes unconscious bias.  

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Vague and Subjective Feedback

Often women receive vague of subjective feedback compared to their male counterparts this lack of specificity not only hampers women’s ability to improve but can undermine their sense of belonging within the organisation especially when the feedback received is focused on personality traits while men receive specific feedback based on their actions and skills. Harvard Business Review found that 57% pf women received vague praise during their performance reviews but only 40% of women received developmental feedback that would lead to career growth. Women are also less likely to receive the more difficult feedback when they have a male manage as they feel discomfort when being critical to someone who looks different to them. To help close the gap in feedback women need to be actively seeking feedback throughout the year not just when performance reviews come up which can foster a culture of growth and can help know what to expect during an annual review.  

 You may be interested in are article: 6 Things to include in your performance reviews 

Removing gender biases in performance reviews requires a concerted effort across the business. From assumptions about women’s commitment to their careers post motherhood, to stereotypes about their emotional stability theses antiquated views hinder the professional development of women. Addressing unconscious biases in performance reviews is an important way to help remove the gender bias in workplaces and create a system that women’s careers can progress. Organisations must invest in training programmes to raise awareness of unconscious biases among managers and employee and fostering a culture of inclusivity. Additionally implementing a structured feedback mechanism to help standardise the evaluation process and minimise subjective biases. Offering a clear and transparent criterion for performance reviews empowers employees to understand what is expected of them and how they will be reviewed making it easier to compare to their male counterparts.