Women are more likely to be told ‘White Lies’ in Performance Reviews
According to a new study by Cornell University, women are more likely than men to be given untruthful performance reviews when they are underperforming. Such ‘untruthful’ evaluations mean that women’s performance reviews are of a lesser quality and less constructive in their development. Why does this happen? It’s a result of stereotypes and biases which lead to an incorrect belief that women are lacking in confidence (in comparison to men), and the belief that women automatically rank lower than men, therefore harsher criticism is deemed an unnecessary burden on women. However, the consequence of ‘telling white lies’ does not improve women’s self-esteem, it actually prevents them developing their skills and can stall career progression. Such biases diminish the opportunities available to women to improve their performance and match the success of their male counterparts.
The Study Puts Gender Bias Under a Spotlight
This study was divided into two experiments. In the first experiment, participants were asked to predict whether they thought a performance evaluation had been given to a male or female employee, based on whether the feedback given was harsher (but truthful) or kinder (but less truthful). In the second part of the study, participants were asked to grade an essay, which was marked as either being produced by a man or woman. Interestingly, but unsurprisingly the results revealed that most participants in the first experiment assumed the less truthful evaluations had been given to a woman, as it appeared kinder. In the second experiment, participants gave harsher evaluations and criticisms when they believed the essay was written by a man. Evaluations given to women were significantly less critical but sheltered the employee from the truth. The results of the study provide confirmation of existing presumptions and biases about women and provide confirmation of the barriers to success in the women’s careers.
The study also explored the biases which caused participants to give the evaluations they gave. Most participants admitted to consciously telling white lies in their feedback to ‘soften the blow’ of criticism for women. Meanwhile, others believed they gave equally honest reviews regardless of the writer’s gender, which suggests that there is an undercurrent of bias which affects women negatively long-term.
Why is this problematic in the pursuit of gender-equality in the workplace?
These results indicate the existing conscious and unconscious gender biases women face in the workplace. Often, the reason behind an inaccurate performance evaluation is the belief in stereotypes that women are lacking confidence and need some sort of protection because they are inferior to men. Telling white lies in performance reviews to ‘spare women’s feelings’ or to avoid knocking women’s confidence is more damaging in the long-term. 1. It breeds a workplace culture which discourages women from advancing in their work and makes the goal of gender equality harder to attain. 2. Sheltering women from the truth negates the purpose of performance reviews- honest feedback with constructive criticism allows employees to learn from past mistakes or shortcomings in their work and improve their performance and accomplish more in the future. 3. Without honest and accurate reviews and equitable treatment, women will be stalled in their career progression as more obstacles are placed in their way and hence the path to gender equality.
What action can business leaders take?
What is required by women is to a) receive equitable treatment from robust, honest feedback in their performance reviews, b) to receive challenging assignments and goals to include ambitious development plans, c) being heard when voicing their opinions and d) being afforded the same equity of opportunity for promotion. Workplaces need to undertake their own performance reviewsand audit their own processes honestly and consider where they may have erred in this regard in the past. Furthermore, employers need to consider the likely negative impact their processes may have had and consider if gender-bias has played a role. The final step involves action and commitment to evolving beyond the white lies to create equal opportunities for everyone moving forward.