Are Performance Reviews Sexist? New Research Says Yes
You’ve probably been asked to do a performance review at some point in your career. It was probably anxiety-inducing, and it probably didn’t accomplish much. Worse: it was probably mandatory.
Career experts have long advised managers to do away with these kinds of evaluations, backed by heaps of studies deeming the practice outdated, costly, and largely ineffective. Last month, researchers at Harvard University and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania found another reason to give them the boot.
Turns out, they’re also sexist.
The study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), looks at the “gender gap in self-promotion” among 1,500 participants, who each took at 20-question analytical test and then judged how “well” they thought they did on it.
The average participant got half the questions right, but women consistently rated their performance lower than men. And not by a small amount: when asked to indicate their agreement on the statement “I performed well on the test,” the average man gave himself a 61 out of 100. The average woman gave herself a 46 out of 100 — a 25% difference.
This isn’t an issue of confidence—or JUST confidence—the researchers found. The ”self-promotion gap” held true even after participants were told their scores, and how it compared to other participants.
In other words, “Even when a woman is told exactly how well she performed on the questionnaire, and how well she performed versus other participants, she still rates herself lower than an equally performing man,” says Christine Exley, an assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and the study’s co-author.
Self-promotion touches nearly every facet of our careers: How we portray ourselves on cover letters and in job interviews, how much money we ask for in salary negotiations — and how much money we get. Why are women so hesitant to engage in it?
Here, Exley—who’s both studied and lived gendered differences in the academic world for years—points to prior research on some of the labels commonly assigned to successful women (“bossy," “shrill”) versus those given to successful men (“capable," “ambitious").
“Sometimes what holds us back from ‘self-promotion’ is not a lack of confidence, (but) more of a discomfort even when we are fully confident,” she says. “One possibility is that women have internalized the potential backlash to self-promotion — perhaps given their own experiences or experiences of others.”
Exley and co-author Judd Kessler join a growing number of researchers detangling the subtle factors contributing to the gender pay gap — and why women still earn about 80 cents for every dollar men do. Already, we know that women are less likely to apply to new jobs, get credit for their work, and vie for promotions than men are.
Performance reviews are particularly fraught: Relying on an employee’s assessments of her work to determine promotions and salary increases might make a manager more inclined to think a man is better at his job than an equally—or better—performing woman. And since most workers agree annual reviews are practically useless (A 2019 Gallup poll found that only 14% of employees believe the evaluations actually inspire them to improve), corporate America's fondness for them is hard to justify.
Objective performance measurements—like setting goals with employees and talking in concrete terms about whether or not those goals were met—might be one practical solution, Exley says.
“Putting the burden on women to change,” she adds, is not.
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