The Many Guises of Gender Bias at Work: Gendered Feedback

The Many Guises of Gender Bias at Work: Gendered Feedback

by Felicity Menzies
Cognitive neuroscience research has taught us that most decisions we make, especially regarding people, are alarmingly contaminated by our biases. Our assessments of others are never as objective as we believe them to be.
In an earlier post, I explored how cultural stereotypes interact with role stereotypes to influence assessments of competence. Similar mechanisms cause systematic bias in the terms used to evaluate male and female performance. Researchers from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research reviewed hundreds of performance reviews from four unnamed technology and professional services companies. The results of their study showed that women and men receive divergent performance feedback at work that align with gender stereotypes of men as driven, ambitious, visionary and successful and women as nurturing, communal and collaborative. The results held up irrespective of the gender of the assessor.
  •     Women were described as “supportive,” “collaborative” and “helpful” nearly twice as often as men, and women’s reviews had more than twice (2.39 times) the references to team accomplishments, rather than individual achievements
  •     Men’s reviews contained twice as many words related to assertiveness, independence and self-confidence—words like “drive,” “transform,” “innovate” and “tackle.”
  •     Men also received three times as much feedback linked to a specific business outcome, and twice the number of references to their technical expertise and vision.
Gender is a large part of our identity that is often defined by our psychological differences as men and women. Psychological differences are reflected in many gender stereotypes, but research has found that, in reality, men and women are more alike than we think. A meta-synthesis of more than 100 meta-analyses aggregating the results of more than 12 million men and women identified only ten psychological attributes in which there was a significant gap between genders. Conversely, they found an almost 80 percent overlap between the genders for more than 75 percent of psychological characteristics, such as risk-taking, occupational stress, and morality. Simply put, gender differences are not so profound as John Gray, from the Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus fame, suggests. Physically, yes. But, psychologically, no.
However, gender stereotypes, as the Stanford research indicates, have a pervasive effect on assessments of professional competency—at work, in business, in the media, in social discourse, we assume women to think and act in accordance with feminine stereotypes, and we expect men to exhibit stereotypically masculine traits. Compare the following two extracts from The Australian’s 30 most influential people in higher education*:

Michelle Simmons

‘Michelle Simmons was in Washington DC keynoting a high-end conference when word got out she’d just received $26 million from the federal government to help her UNSW team win the international race to become the first in the world to develop a quantum (size of a single atom) computer. Within 48 hours, Telstra and the Commonwealth Bank had chipped in another $10m each. Which pretty much makes Simmons the poster girl for the (Malcolm) Turnbull government’s tech-driven, business engaged, innovative future. She is the real thing.’

Ian Chubb

‘They don’t come more dauntless than Ian Chubb. A poster boy for persistence, Chubb has crisscrossed the country more times than he cares to remember, piling on more mileage than one of the armoured trucks that bears his name, banging the drum about science. We need a strategy, he says. We need scale. And we don’t need complacency. We’re punching well within our weight zone, and that’s on a good day. When Canberra didn’t listen, Chubb extended his tenure. Suddenly there was a new pair of boots in The Lodge and the chief scientist had a receptive audience. His hard work struck paydirt in an innovation statement harbouring, among other things, breathing space for critical research infrastructure and extra cash for CSIRO. It’s the first really solid good news for the research sector since the 2008 stimulus package. More importantly, it signifies a real change of emphasis on the importance and power of science. Chubb can take much of the credit. He’s no longer in the job, but his legacy is so vast this list would be incomplete without him.’
As well as the obvious greater print space dedicated to Ian compared with Michelle, it’s not difficult to detect marked gender bias in the language used to describe the two high- achievers. Michelle’s achievements are passive—she seems to have been gifted a sizeable sum from the government. (There is no mention of what she did to secure $26m funding). Then, upon receipt of funding, she passed on the funds to ‘help her UNSW team’ develop a pretty cool computer. Then, two large corporates gave her more money. So Michelle’s contribution is… receiving money and helping a university team to build a computer by giving them the money. Hmm. Something is missing here. Oh yes, her skills and expertise! Rather that listing her professional attributes and achievements, Michelle is described as a poster girl for—wait for it—a male-led government! And then to rub salt in the wound, Turnbull’s government is described as tech-driven, business-engaged, innovative. Those adjectives are not used to describe Michelle. In fact, no adjectives are used to describe Michelle. Michelle is a noun—a poster girl and ‘the real thing’ (whatever that means?)
Now, what about Ian? Well, Ian is not a poster boy of anyone but himself. In fact, Ian is a poster boy for ‘persistence’. Ian is not certainly not passive. Ian is ‘dauntless’, relentless in his efforts to cover the country in his ‘armoured trucks’ while ‘banging a drum’ for science. Ian has a commanding voice. “We need a strategy. We need scale. We don’t need complacency”. Ian is direct, forceful and determined—he punches on, works hard, and takes control, putting himself in The Lodge. His achievements are described as critical, solid, and important. No mention of corporate funding here—Ian knows how to generate cash on his own. He doesn’t need the help of others. He can take most of the credit for his successes. His legacy is as vast as his description is long.
Gender bias in performance assessment and feedback at work has profound implications. If recruiters and managers expect and believe women to be more team-oriented and men to be more independent in their jobs, women are more likely to be recruited and encouraged into support roles instead of revenue-generating positions that lead to executive jobs. Globally, far fewer women than men hold executive roles. But when they do, a disproportionate number of women can be found in CHRO/HRD, CFO and CMO roles, while the CEO, COO, CIO and Sales Director roles are dominated by men.
Other research shows how gender biased performance assessment affects promotions. When participants in unconscious bias workshops are asked which of two candidates they would pick to replace a top performer in their organization, about 90% select the person described in terms related to individual initiative—the same words that turned up more often in the men’s performance reviews in the Stanford study.
Merit is good in theory, flawed in practice. It is laden with implicit bias and far from objective. As reported in a recommended white paper by CEW In the Eye of the Beholder, one study found that the more organisations promoted themselves as meritocracies, the more their managers showed greater gender bias. Managers in these organisations tend to believe they are objective and don’t examine their biases.
Don’t let your organisation or team be blindsided by the merit trap. Look around, look down, and look up. If you see fewer women sideways and up compared with down, you’ve got a problem. If you see fewer women in business roles compared with support roles, you’ve got a problem. If you notice women take longer to achieve leadership roles compared with men, you’ve got a problem.
*Credit, Dr. Linda Peach, Women’s Agenda

Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.