April 10—a day that marks just how far into the new year women must work to reach pay parity with men. That’s more than one business quarter; more than one season. And ultimately, a lot of hard work spent catching up to a pay gap that can be linked to biased treatment of women in the workplace.
Equal pay is a complex conversation that requires voices and strategies from across the spectrum—sociology, psychology, human resources, government, and various other groups willing to join together to make strides in the right direction. But when it comes to women’s opportunities at work, there’s one key area that often perpetuates inequality: performance reviews. With their historically qualitative, subjective nature, gender bias easily and regularly creeps in and can keep women from equal access to growth. This is especially evident in the feedback women receive at work—notably in conversations around promotions and raises.
The Personality Paradox
While some may argue that women simply ask for less, tying back to similar arguments around negotiation, recent research disarms this theory when it comes to promotion conversations. In a recent report, 39% of women asked for a promotion and 29% asked for a raise, which actually surpassed men at 36% and 27% respectively. While the rates of conversation initiative differ only slightly, the results differ greatly. Women were more likely than men to have received negative personality feedback that they were “bossy, aggressive, or intimidating” with 30% of women reporting this compared to 23% of men.
Why is this so problematic? For men, these personality traits can be flipped into positives and qualities that actually secure those very promotions and raises. A woman may be called aggressive, while a man is seen as an assertive leader—a trait that is often rewarded. This is further supported by findings that in general, women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical, subjective feedback rather than positive feedback or critical, objective feedback. This harms women in two ways: 1) With more negative feedback than men, they’re on the receiving end of bias that may hurt their promotion/growth opportunities at review time, and 2) they are left with subjective feedback that isn’t directly tied to on-the-job skills, leaving them with less development direction for how to get better and grow professionally.
Unraveling Bias and Supporting Inclusive Feedback
Bias is naturally difficult to overcome—after all, it’s wired into our brains and takes over without our consciousness performing checks and balances for us. But with such great stakes, we need to strive to prevent bias by developing thoughtful, inclusive cultures. With the clear connection between how women’s performance is evaluated and their opportunities for growth, this starts with implementing and promoting fair feedback processes. We need to be asking ourselves: How can we stop bias in its tracks so that women not only receive helpful skills-related feedback for development, but also have fair access to promotions and raises?
It can be daunting to get started, but here are a few key factors to consider when developing a feedback culture that supports inclusive growth:
1. Skills-based. Allow for quantitative feedback on pre-set skills that are applicable across job function and level to reduce potential gender bias that often leads to personality feedback. If the expectations for success across roles are laid out in front of someone giving feedback, they’re able to treat the receivers equally and be reminded of core competencies for that role. With this safeguard in place, women and men can be evaluated against the same standards.
2. Structured. Rely on templates and structured feedback that helps individuals avoid bias, rather than leaving people with open-ended opportunities. A few models that help avoid bias are SKS and Situation-Behavior-Impact. Feedback should be as objective, relevant, timely, and actionable as possible, so relying on prompts to get the most meaningful feedback out of employees is critical. If women and men are receiving feedback based on the same prompts, their opportunities for development and promotion become more equal.
3. Frequent. Rather than just doing traditional, once-per-year reviews, you should provide comprehensive, continuous feedback between peers and managers so that it’s tied to specific, recent events. The key is to divide feedback for development from feedback for measurement, but both should be frequent in order to mitigate bias. It’s unlikely that memory will serve perfectly once per year, and that’s when our minds are more likely to play bias tricks and fill in the blanks rather than relying on facts, also known as recency bias. By exchanging more frequent feedback (with bias-blocking templates), this creates a historical record of feedback over time for managers to turn to for accurate insight into performance. Above all else, establishing a continuous feedback culture allows both women and men to know how they’re doing on a more regular basis—allowing them equal access to development opportunities.
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