Do employers see their male and female employees differently? Yes, in that they see the work men do a lot more clearly. That’s the takeaway of a new study from two Stanford researchers who ran a gendered comparison of written performance reviews. Across three high-tech companies and one professional services firm, and in evaluations that conveyed both praise and criticism, feedback to men was full of granular detail and “actionable” advice. Feedback to women was blanketed in stereotypes and uselessly vague.
The researchers—Shelley Correll of Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research and Caroline Simard of the university’s Center for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership—wrote in the Harvard Business Review that they have come to see performance evaluations as both a symptom and a cause of women’s underrepresentation in the upper tiers of the business world. A symptom because the hazy evaluations of women’s work may reflect an unconscious, biased sense that they are indistinguishable team members rather than leaders with measurable accomplishments. And a cause because this indistinct feedback makes it harder for women to improve where they’re weakest or to get promoted based on strong work they’ve done.
According to the study, positive feedback for women often takes the form of platitudes such as, “You had a great year.” In contrast, the HBR report continues,
our analysis found that developmental feedback for men was more likely to be linked to business outcomes (60% for men versus 40% for women). … Clearly, these dynamics can disadvantage women at promotion time. Without specific, documented business accomplishments, it is difficult for a manager to make the case for advancement. Conversely, if a business objective was missed, a lack of frank feedback deprives women of the opportunity to hit the mark next time.
Negative reviews (or, in business-speak, “developmental feedback”) of women were equally clouded by sexist clichés. Whereas men “were more likely to receive insightful developmental feedback about their technical skills, such as ‘You need to deepen your domain knowledge in the X space—once you have that understanding, you will be able to contribute to the design decisions that impact the customer,’ ” women were more likely to be critiqued on their “communication style.” For example, the phrase “too aggressive” appeared roughly three times as often in women’s reviews.
The Wall Street Journal, which reported on Correll and Simard’s in-progress research last year, noted that both male and female supervisors tended to give men more specific feedback. But the researchers posit that women with male bosses may be at an added disadvantage. “Necessary critical feedback can be difficult for a manager to offer to anybody, but … it can be especially uncomfortable when it is given across a dimension of difference, such as gender, race, or age,” they write at HBR. “When giving critical feedback to women, male managers may be especially worried about how the feedback will be received.” Related studies—cited, most famously, in Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In—have also suggested that concerns about appearances, or about false allegations, can dissuade men from mentoring junior female colleagues.
Correll and Simard have some suggestions to shore up reviews against unconscious bias. They urge employers to establish the criteria of their reviews in advance, and to apply them equally by, for example, striving “to write reviews of similar lengths for all employees.” The performance evaluation is no one’s favorite genre, but in many workplaces, it’s an important record of who did what. As Correll and Simard’s close-reading shows, in these small histories, women’s work is continually erased.