How Performance Reviews Are Reinforcing Gender Bias|How Performance Reviews Are Reinforcing Gender Bias

How Performance Reviews Reinforce Gender Bias

The existence of a major gender disparity in the tech industry, particularly in the male-dominated culture of Silicon Valley, is common knowledge. The percentages of female employees working at major tech companies are pretty dismal: 32% at Facebook, 31% at Apple, 30% at Twitter and Google and 24% at Intel. The disparity between men and women is even greater when aggregating for women working in technical positions.

Companies have been trying to reverse this trend by implementing workplace childcare facilities, equal maternity and paternity options and other top-down targeted policies. Apple and Facebook have even offered to cover the costs for female employees who decide to freeze their eggs.

While CEOs are trying to make it easier for women to stay and prosper in the tech industry, many women are actually leaving due to gender bias rather than personal choices. Ellen Pao’s unsuccessful sexual harassment lawsuit against former employer Kleiner Perkins and then subsequent departure from Reddit this year has worked to significantly raise this issue’s profile. Even when women make it to the top, they are often treated as scapegoats in what has been termed by researchers as the “glass cliff.”

Eliminating gender discrimination is a top priority for tech giants and startups alike. No wonder when the risks associated with inaction—failing to tap the potential of top performers, lawsuits, damaged corporate reputations—are serious.

Meanwhile, gender discrimination in feedback and performance reviews from mid-level management continues to block women’s professional advancement in the industry. So, what steps can companies take to ensure all their employees are treated fairly? Let’s take a look at some examples of gender bias in the workplace and what we can do to alleviate the problem.

Unconscious gender biases

Despite many CEOs’ intentions to prioritize gender discrimination, McKinsey & Company’s 2015 Women in the Workplace study revealed that only one third of employees surveyed believe gender diversity is a top priority for their direct manager. What’s more, while 70% of men view gender diversity as important, only 12% believe women have fewer opportunities for advancement; alarmingly, 13% even see gender diversity programs as a hurdle to their own advancement.

It’s not just male managers who are the problem. Studies show women are just as likely to discriminate based on gender.

Before assuming these statistics merely represent sexist test subjects, it’s important to realize that, like it or not, we are all subject to subconscious biases. Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has dedicated her life’s research to understanding our unconscious biases, coming up with a series of Implicit Association Tests.

Her conclusion? Even respondents who claim to hold egalitarian beliefs still demonstrate biases in their answers, due to our brain’s natural tendency to make connections and place people into groups based on preconceived stereotypes. Google has been using these tests to demonstrate to their employees and managers the propensity for unconscious biases.

Gender bias in performance reviews

A potential barrier to advancement, gender discrimination in annual performance reviews may be the main factor reinforcing your company’s glass ceiling. In researcher Kieran Snyder’s 2014 study, she collected and analyzed performance reviews from women and men working in the tech industry.

Snyder found that women were significantly more likely to receive critical feedback vs. male colleagues. Troublingly, women were more likely to receive negative feedback based on perceived personality traits (e.g., abrasive) that are often translated as positive traits (e.g., confident and assertive) for men. For example, common words used in critical reviews of female employees included abrasive, bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional and irrational. Of these, only aggressive was used occasionally for men.

Diverging career paths

Research being conducted at Stanford University’s Claymen Institute for Gender Research sheds light on further barriers to advancement caused by gender stereotypes. For example, researchers have found that managers perceive women to have better team-based skills, while they see men as being more independent. These assumptions result in women and men being put on different career paths, with men favored for leadership positions.

Analyzing performance reviews reveals the language used for both genders conforms to typical male and female stereotypes. While women were given constructive feedback for using what was perceived as aggressive communication, they were also found to be “supportive,” “collaborative” and “helpful” more often than men. Meanwhile, language used to describe men was linked more to confidence and independence. Men were also twice as likely to receive feedback based on their technical expertise.

Action plan and awareness

To promote awareness and overcome gender bias in the workplace, consider these steps:

1. Help managers understand and confront implicit biases.

Too many managers view diversity training as a mere formality. The tricky part about implicit bias is that most people assume they’re not at risk of discriminating against employees. In fact, we’re all subject to unconscious stereotyping and understanding why is the only way to overcome it. Google, for example, has been particularly active in promoting bias awareness programs for its employees.

2. Be conscious of language.

Once managers accept the possibility of unconscious gender bias at work, give them tools to deliver feedback fairly and effectively. For example, one common mistake cited in studies is the tendency of managers to give women feedback based on judgments rather than facts.

Studies show the way we perceive personality is often subjective, based more on our own. Teach managers to stick to facts and behaviors when giving constructive feedback. Avoid using adjectives like abrasive, bossy or emotional. Actually, using verbs rather than adjectives is another trick to ensure your feedback is more objective. Finally, learn more on giving constructive feedback here.

3. Employ 360-degree reviews.

Having more people in the review process gives a more complete picture of an employee’s performance and helps identify and prevent possible biases. Allowing employees to seek feedback from other sources can also encourage new female hires to seek out more senior-level women for encouragement and guidance on professional development.

4. Facilitate anonymous employee feedback to managers.

This can help correct biases. For example, in the Women in the Workplace study, women reported they were less likely to be consulted on important decisions than their male counterparts.

If female employees have the chance to point out possible unintentional biases, managers will have the chance to identify and correct their behavior.

5. Help employees track feedback.

Transparent, easy access to performance data not only encourages employees to report issues of promotion or development inequality to management but also helps raise confidence that managers will be held accountable, especially if corrective actions are absent or slow in coming. Too, companies can leverage this data to identify managers who may be blocking women from advancing through the ranks.


As noted above, eliminating gender discrimination and recognizing implicit bias ought to be a top organizational priority for high-tech giants and startups—not simply as an exercise to avoid litigation and a damaged employer brand—but as a means to tapping the maximum potential from workforces and talent pools.