Removing Gender Bias From Performance Feedback

Denise Reed Lamoreaux

Global Chief Diversity Officer at Atos

Learning Objectives

This session uncovers the hidden biases managers fall prey to while cataloging employee performance during the review process. Feeback provided to women is not as specific and tied to metrics as is the feedback given to men, and is often peppered with words such as "aggressive" "emotional" and "timid". Leaders will walk away from this session equipped with insights and information on how to provide actionable, equitable feedback to all employees.

Key Takeaways:

  • How to structure equitable performance feedback sessions so that all genders receive similar information tied to company goals and objectives

  • Exposure to models that assist in structuring a high impact feedback session

"Biases hurt women's careers over time, lead to gender gaps in earnings and the underrepresentation of women in those senior-level roles. "

Denise Reed Lamoreaux

Global Chief Diversity Officer at Atos


Hello, and welcome to today’s presentation on removing gender bias from performance feedback. My name is Denise Reed Lamoreaux. I’m the Global Chief Diversity Officer at Ato’s Corporation. I’m excited to be here today with you to share this information. Now more than ever, it’s important for us to make sure there’s equity in all things related to employee engagement and employee reviews of performance. This topic, removing gender bias from performance feedback, is extremely topical and one well worth discussing.

Let’s move into what we’re going to cover today. I start with this quote from McKinsey and Co. While I’m not going to read it verbatim, we need to understand that women are missing out on opportunities for advancement and for development, because they don’t have enough viable feedback that’s given to them on a regular basis to understand where they need to make improvements, changes, additions, etc. We are definitely experiencing the fallout from that in our skew of gender balance numbers within our fortune 500 companies.

There’s all kinds of reasons why the gender bias does exist. Sometimes, it’s completely unconscious. I would [unintelligible] a guess that most of it is unconscious bias. But unless we start giving some very meaningful, not meaningless feedback to our women, they will continue to experience a lack of opportunities for development. The number one reason why a woman leaves a company is generally tied to career advancement opportunities. They leave because nobody has told them how they can improve. Nobody has spent time with them, discussing ways by which they can make a difference. Nobody has told them where they stand within their team metrics so that they have a starting point to actually improve from. Without that information, how can we expect anyone to be able to move forward?

We need to talk more about their assertiveness versus their aggressiveness. We need to provide constructive—not destructive—feedback, provide insights and insults, and make sure that we are giving them the right type of feedback to be able to move forward with. This is a lot easier than it sounds. So stay with me, and I promise you, you will see the way through this, so that the feedback you give in the future is much more tied to team goals, is much more specific to the woman’s experience, and is much more able to help those women move forward.

A lot of this information that I’ll share with you today is a reflection on a study that was done at Stanford University by the Clayman Institute, where they really looked at gender performance feedback across a wide spectrum of different companies. The specifics were that the whole point behind the fact that women get less specific feedback and no detailed information to be able to tell them where they stand within a team. What that does is it really kind of makes it difficult for a leader to be able to say, “This is the ideal candidate for this role,” and say it with confidence, and with some kind of proof behind it.

Without ranking these women within their teams, without being able to point to specific accomplishments they made, without telling their success stories, that candidacy is really kind of weak, and will be seen as such by others as well. So we have to follow through. It’s a leadership imperative to get this right. We have spent too much time, wasting time in being able to provide solid feedback that is actionable, and will produce results in the future. So let’s get busy. Let’s find out more, and learn how we can really work into this space.

Managers give men high performance ratings, even when their qualifications and behaviors are identical to women. That means that the women end up with a lesser levels of of performance evaluations. Even though they may be doing the same work at the same level, they don’t get the same feedback. Biases hurt women’s careers over time, lead to gender gaps in earnings, and the under representation of women in those senior level roles. But unless we get more specific, these reviews will be continued to be full of gender bias.

Take a look at these two examples of actual verbage from performance reviews about two individuals who were dealing with the inability to get their point across in meetings and be more assertive. Notice that Jim, the male, is told he needs to develop his natural ability to work with people, but Heidi is given less complimentary feedback. She’s told that she shrinks around others and needs to be self confident. So automatically, even though though two faced the same hurdle, the male counterpart gets more favorable feedback than the woman does. While this is not specific, it doesn’t give them actionable ideas of things to do. You can see already that Heidi will feel more intimidated by this feedback, and Jim will think to himself, “Yeah, I’m doing a good job. There are things I can improve on, but the boss thinks I’m doing great.”

Let’s look at a couple other examples where we need to be more specific for women. Women are told constantly that they’re good team players. So what does that mean? It’s some vague compliment that gives a slight indication as to the fact that the leader appreciates their ability to work in a team, but nothing more than that. They contribute to the success of the team on a regular basis. So again, what does that mean? Does that mean out of 22 training sessions that were taught, Kathy actually delivered 20 of them? Does that mean that Lisa had the number one bill to close ratio within the team in the last quarter? We need to let these women know that because this will make a difference in their ability to track themselves, and be a little competitive with their own selves. If Kathy knows that she delivered 20 out of 22 sessions, maybe she really wants to strive to have delivered all of them. Same with Lisa, if she wants to maintain that top spot, how many more transactions will she need to complete in that next quarter to maintain that title and keep her reign in place?

The likelihood of women receiving feedback in the shape of negatively based criticism will decrease if you start getting more specific with them. That’s where you point out times where they acted aggressively in a meeting when they were merely trying to make their point. The use of the word aggressive in men’s reviews and women’s reviews is markedly different. A woman is told that she’s being too aggressive and needs to tone it down. But a man in the same scenario will be told your aggressive approach was exactly what we needed to close that deal. So look at the difference. Aggressive can be complimentary in a male setting, and yet less than complimentary when you’re talking about women’s performance. That has to stop, and there are ways that we can do that.

We need to move away from giving vague feedback, and really figure out what it does to our women in their space of being confident, and feeling that they’re competent, and that they’re consistent in their approach to the work that they do. Women are less likely to receive specific feedback, as I’ve mentioned, and men are offered that clear picture of where they are doing well, and specific guidance about what it’ll take to get to that next level. Women are told job well done, but that is not enough information for them to move forward with.

Think of yourself as a trainer, and you hand out those evaluation sheets at the end of a session and people write down “great job”. Great job on what? Was it part one? Part two? Part three? Was it my introduction? Was it my conclusion? Was it my activities? What did I do a great job on? How can I make this better? You’re saying “Job well done,” gives me nothing. We can’t do this to our people during our feedback sessions. We have to be specific with and for them.

When we don’t do this, women are at a disadvantage. Oftentimes, they can end up being, quote unquote, trapped into more support type functions that are traditionally female roles from back back in the day. That doesn’t necessarily lead directly to the C suite if we are constantly putting them into those particular silos. If the woman missed a business objective, not giving her frank feedback on that will deprive her the opportunity to exceed that objective during her next review period.

All of these examples come under the heading of what’s called protective hesitation, which is the inability to give proper feedback because the person giving the feedback is worried that the recipient will become upset, will become emotional, will become uncontrollable, as words are sometimes used when talking at and to about women. This is a real barrier, because unless these women are given that specific information, and even when it’s constructive feedback on something that wasn’t quite as it should have been, we have to be honest with these women. We have to be upfront with them. They can handle it. They want that specificity so that they can make improvements.

If we walk around thinking we’re doing a good job 99% of the time, and then come to our review and are told the exact opposite, hgow in the world can we survive through that? How do we get beyond it? How do we then move forward with development if we’re not given some specific examples that we can really relate to, and overcome as we move forward?

Leaders have to use specific words to really get the point across about what they’re trying to say. I’ve embedded in this document a list of what I call power words. They are words such as critical, essential, things along those lines that really help draw home the importance of the work that your individual employees are doing, and showcase the impact their work has had. When you start to use these power words when you’re pulling together your performance feedback, what it does is it just really elevates the message you’re sending to your employee. Then, that individual will be able to pay better attention during your feedback session and ask more specific questions based on the information you share with an individual.

Who wouldn’t want to say that their work is critical to the success of the company? Who wouldn’t want to be known as a dedicated employee? But just saying those words isn’t enough, show it with some data. Give them the facts and the figures that they need. Make recommendations on courses they should consume, or teammates that they should consult with, or opportunities for them to cross train. Be specific. Show the power of your words in the statements that you’re making. Your individuals will have the opportunity to shine as a result.

There are words to avoid. A woman that has been told most of her career that she is caring, that she’s intrapersonal, and that she’s warm. Well, these are all characteristics that are obviously good to possess, but we need to tell her more about how she’s very insightful in meetings, and that she is accomplished in presenting. Then, give specific examples of why we think that so that she knows where she has strengths, and where she has areas for development.

Performance reviews definitely need a performance review themselves. There is nothing perfect in the world of performance reviews. So it’s important for us to take a hard look at ourselves, and make adjustments as needed. Before you even begin the evaluation process, outline what specific criteria you are employing to evaluate everyone in your team. In other words, standardize the process, figure out the specific results and behaviors that will demonstrate mastery within your team, and use that exact same criteria evenly across the board. Tie their feedback to business goals and outcomes, even when it may not be exactly positive.

You have to let the person know where they stand within their team, so that they have something to live up to. In so doing, you create this atmosphere where in coopetition really comes into play. So what is coopetition? If you haven’t heard that term before, it’s all about the fact that people are collaborating, they’re communicating, they’re cooperating, but they’re also kind of competing with each other. So you really want to harness the power that comes from a team that is so focused on productivity and improving and reaching that next milestone that they bring each other up the scales just through that activity.

Everyone has an intrinsic desire to succeed. Everyone wants to be recognized for their achievements. Everyone wants to be able to have their name in lights and that moment of notice on the parts of their colleagues. So offer that opportunity. Harness the power of coopetition, and really be able to let your people know exactly where they stand within their team hierarchy. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re going to say you’re number two only to Jim, but you are going to say you are in the number two spot. The difference between your rating and the person who is in the number one space currently is X percent. Give them something to strive for. That inherent need to succeed is going to bubble up to the top, and you will see increased productivity over time.

You want to have an appraisal scale that specifies the start doing, stop doing, continue doing idea so that this person knows exactly where to go from. Every appraiser needs to use the same process. You can’t have one team appraising one way and another team praising some way completely differently. What if people cross over from team to team? They won’t know what to expect the next time they are meeting with that new leader.

This is an interesting concept. I read this article as I was pulling these slides together. Become a slow thinker. What do I mean by that? Fast thinking relies on stereotypes and implicit biases. It’s instinctual, it’s emotional. But slow thinking requires you to sit back and really do the metrics. Who is in your top position? Who come second? What’s the margin of difference? What are some of the things that person aided to get them to the number one spot that person B could really benefit from? Pulling that together requires a slowing down of the process to complete these evaluations. You will give better, more meaningful feedback as a result.

There’s a wonderful test that’s available to you, too. It’s a comprehension test focused on gender and career sponsored by Harvard University that will help you get to know what your own gender biases are, and that will help with the space of career planning, career performance reviews, etc. So I strongly recommend it, takes about 15 minutes to complete, so not a huge commitment on your part. It will give you insights and information that can help shape your own development as you try to work on giving good feedback on other people’s development.

You can’t say in someone’s review, “You take too long to make your point,” you need to be much more specific than that. Give exact examples. Talk about strategies that that individual could use to make a difference. You can’t tell your employee, “Keep up the good work. Your performance has been stellar this quarter.” Well, how was that so? What position is an individual in? How many sales did they close in that quarter? How many training sessions did they complete?”

You certainly can’t tell someone, “You need to learn to control your emotions in meetings.” Figure out a way by which you can talk to them in less insulting ways that will automatically put them on the defensive, so that you can make the point about how they need to become more even keeled, not react to potential conflict in meetings the way they do. Give specific examples as well as references to materials they can look to for further guidance and information.

Certainly, don’t say to them, “Your decisive nature inspires your colleagues,” because they aren’t going to know what you mean by that. You want to talk about how they are really kind of the heart and soul of your team. Give examples of when they have gone above and beyond, and stayed late, came in early, covered someone’s emergency exit due to a child’s illness by staying through their lunch. and things along those lines. Be specific. Be complimentary. Give those examples so that they know what you’re talking about.

Let’s move into kind of a review of what we talked about today. A lot of information has been thrown at you in a short period of time, but now’s the time for you to begin to, quote unquote, digest it. Figure out how you can make a difference, and how you can really begin to turn the dial upward in giving that specific feedback that is tied to performance and tied to team metrics, so that your people can equally advance through the continuum within your teams.

Remember, your feedback should be constructive, not destructive. It should be free from gender bias. It should not be in full of meaningless information, but full of meaningful data points, examples, and specific situations. You don’t want to call someone aggressive. You need to make sure that when you’re talking about being assertive, you’re saying so in a complimentary tone. Incites, not insults. That’s something I think to myself every time I sit down to write up performance review material, I want to provide insights and not insults. I want that person partnering with me so that I can help them be successful in their goals.

Men get two thirds more feedback about their technical expertise and their independence than women do. Women’s performance reviews have two and a half times as many references to team accomplishments rather than individual results. We have to do better here. A woman is a viable and important part of a team, but that shouldn’t be all she’s recognized for. It should be her individual contributions as well.

Avoid those negative words: strident, aggressive, bossy, abrasive. They don’t belong in that performance review, and that is your opinion. You need to make sure that your opinion is removed from the statements so that they don’t automatically put that person on the defensive, or make them feel there’s no way they can overcome this type of feedback and perform at a high level.

Gender bias and performance feedback does exist. Men are offered a much more clear picture of how to move forward than women. But from this point forward, you have the information to remove gender bias from performance feedback. It’s not only just a woman’s rights situation, it’s a human rights situation. We want our work environments to be equitable, inclusive, diverse, and respectful. Bring that all together, remove that tentative speak, get specific, share equitable information so that it’s the same across the board, and you’ll see enormous differences. It’s really up to us. It’s removing the vague to make performance reviews equally valuable for both our men and our women who work for us.

You do have the power within you to accomplish this. Together with the rest of your team, you can be very successful in removing gender bias from performance feedback. Thank you so much for your time. I hope you begin to incorporate some of this right away. I look forward to the next opportunity to engage with you. Bye now.

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