Overcoming Gender Bias in Performance Feedback #2: What Does Gender Bias Look Like?


Despite recent advances in overcoming overt gender bias in the workplace, covert gender bias still lingers as evidenced by pay inequity, the number of women in top leadership roles, and differential standards in performance feedback. What are some of the ways in which performance feedback has been shown to have an underlying gender bias that holds women back?

According to Cecchi-Dimeglio, “women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback than men.” Researchers have discovered the feedback given to women is more likely to focus on personality or communication style instead of key performance indicators and business outcomes. The same behaviors that are rated positively in men are rated negatively in women. When women don’t meet expectations of warmth and helpfulness, they are perceived as unlikable. On the other hand, when they don’t portray traits such as assertiveness and direct communication, they’re penalized for not being leadership material. When women receive positive performance feedback, their success is attributed to luck or being a hard worker rather than their abilities and skills. As such, women don’t receive due credit for their accomplishments.

It’s no wonder women often walk out of performance evaluation meetings feeling frustrated, confused, and demoralized. Bear and colleagues state that women often end up internalizing negative, biased feedback, believing they aren’t cut out for leadership roles. This results in women either opting out of opportunities for leadership development or creating a self-fulfilling prophecy in which they become even less likely to be selected as a potential leader.

As a leader or manager who is tasked with providing performance feedback to female direct reports, what can you do to counteract gender bias?

  1. Write a first draft of your feedback and let it sit for a few days. When you come back to review your first draft, think of a male employee who is similar in behavior and personality style to the female employee you are evaluating. How would you describe the same attributes in him? Would you ask him to make the same kinds of improvements you may be asking of your female employee? If not, your review may be influenced by gender bias. Rewrite your review to be more neutral, balancing the feedback you provide to male and female employees.

  2. Identify objective criteria tied to business goals and outcomes to evaluate performance. Identify the results and behaviors demonstrating mastery of each outcome. Use the same criteria for all employees at the same level.

  3. Set a goal to discuss three specific business outcomes with each of your employees. Tie both positive and negative feedback to these outcomes.

  4. Write reviews of similar lengths for everyone and speak to technical skills and abilities with equal frequency for men and women.

  5. End feedback sessions with all employees by specifying what they must continue doing, start doing, and stop doing to more effectively achieve expected goals and outcomes.

Let's consider a case study.

You are Susan’s supervisor, and it’s time for annual performance evaluations. Susan is in her mid-30s and has been with the company since completing her MBA six years ago. She works on a product development team with four other people, all of whom report to you. She is the only woman on the team. She tends to keep to herself when not in a team meeting, but she does seem to be a hard worker who gets things done. Although she seems to have good working relationships with her team members, she’s not overly friendly with them. Her team has been high performing, meeting or exceeding all of their goals over the past year. Susan’s specialty is market research, and she has been a top performer in the company in this area. Consider these two examples of feedback you could provide to Susan:

Susan, the product development team has obviously done a great job in meeting their goals this year. I see how much your hard work and dedication has contributed to their success. I do have some concerns about your connection to the team. I’ve noticed that you’re probably an introvert and like to hunker down in your office when not in team meetings. I worry that this will end up hurting the team in the long run because everyone has to be completely on board to reach team goals. Honestly, people see you as unfriendly. As a result, I would like you to work on being more outgoing and vocal around the office.
Susan, I want to start by expressing my appreciation for the contributions you’ve made to the product development team this year, as you’ve once again met all team goals. Your ability to work under pressure, your strong analytical skills, and attention to detail have played a key role in keeping the team on track. I want you to continue honing those strengths because they are critical to our success. I have noticed, however, that you tend to leave team meetings fairly quickly after they officially end, and I’m concerned this behavior may be leaving you out of the loop on important information that is being shared informally. When we were working on the Alpha project last year, you missed out on some key information because of this, and you ended up having to do extra work as a result. An area for improvement would be for you to stop leaving so quickly and start sticking around for 10-15 minutes post-meeting if you don’t have another commitment immediately following. This will allow you to have all the information you need to fulfill your responsibilities on projects and will allow your voice and expertise to be heard when important things come up.

What are the big differences between these two sets of feedback?

  • In the first example, the supervisor does not recognize Susan’s actual contributions to the work of her team but rather praises her for “hard work and dedication.” The supervisor never recognizes the team’s success as Susan’s success and doesn’t appear to see her as a significant contributor. The feedback in this example also focuses heavily on Susan’s personality as an “introvert” whose unfriendliness may hurt the team, although no specific examples are provided. Finally, this example does not identify a specific, well-defined behavior for improvement.

  • In the second example, the supervisor specifically identifies the technical skills Susan has contributed to the team to help them reach their goals. The supervisor identifies a specific behavior Susan could work on to improve not only her performance but also her influence. Finally, this example includes feedback about what Susan should continue doing, stop doing, and start doing to more effectively achieve business goals.

You can expect my next post in this series after the July 4th holiday as I will be enjoying vacation with my family for the next couple weeks. I’ll be writing next about the second category of unhelpful performance feedback received by women: vague feedback. Stay tuned!


Bear, J.B., Cushenberry, L., London, M., & Sherman, G.D. (2017). Performance feedback, power retention, and the gender gap in leadership. The Leadership Quarterly. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.leaqua.2017.02.003.

Biernat, M., Tocci, M.J., & Williams, J.C. (2012). The language of performance evaluations: Gender-based shifts in content and consistency of judgment. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3, 186-192.

Cecchi-Dimeglio, P. (2017, April). How gender bias corrupts performance reviews and what to do about it. Harvard Business Review.

Correll, S., & Simard, C. (2016, April). Research: Vague feedback is holding women back. Harvard Business Review.

Jaime GoffComment