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NextGen Magazine


Study: Performance Evaluations Disadvantage Women When Criteria Are Ambiguous, Questions Open-Ended

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Jan 11, 2019

A recent study has found that the more ambiguous the criteria and the more open-ended the questions are in an employee performance evaluation, the greater the gendered gap between male and female employees; conversely, that gap closes the more focused and specific the process is, according to the Harvard Business Review

First the team looked at the more typical arrangements by analyzing men and women's written performance reviews. Overall, they found that women's feedback tends to be more vague (such as "do more work in person") and is focused on their communication skills; by contrast, men's reviews tend to be more detailed and more focused on technical ability. Then, the team observed actual performance reviews at two companies. They found that there was great variance in criteria for what was important, but patterns of variance often followed stereotyped gender roles, noting that when speaking of personalities, the majority of critiques of women were about being too aggressive while the majority of critiques of men were about being too soft. 

(With regard to findings that men are critiqued for not being aggressive enough, this study calls to mind another study, which found that companies heavy on what's called a masculine contest culture tend to create toxic work conditions for both men and women)

The researchers believe this difference can be traced, at least partially, to the informal and unstructured nature of many performance evaluations, pointing in particular to the open-ended, ambiguous questions on many review forms. They tested this hypothesis by creating a checklist, with the input of managers, that repeatedly references specific and predetermined data, as well as reminding them to refer to that data in making their evaluations. The researchers found that, when given these questions, managers offered more specific and evidence-based feedback to employees of all genders. 

The study recommended that organizations evaluate employees along an established rubric that can be consistently applied to all workers, limit open-ended questions by asking for specific and measurable outcomes, and regularly check their reviews for consistency.