Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Language in Organizations: When and Why are Men Given Higher Performance Evaluations than Women?

Researchers are familiar with the gender gaps in performance evaluations of employees, and the promotion gaps that follow. Firms are aware of this too, and many of them take serious steps to become fair in their evaluations. Imagine looking inside one such firm - a Fortune 500 technology company committed to fairness - and seeing that they also differ in how men and women’s work is evaluated. How could that happen?

Research by Shelley J. Correll, Katherine R. Weisshaar, Alison Wynn, and JoAnne DelfinoWehner published in American Sociological Review shed light on how unfair evaluations happen. They looked at the scores given to men and women, and also examined the text of the performance assessments. They asked two questions: (1) Were workplace behaviors viewed similarly when done by women and men? (2) Were workplace behaviors valued similarly when done by women and men?

What is viewed and how it is valued are central components of performance assessment. And, in this firm, the answer to the two questions were “yes” to both questions for most of the nearly 90 workplace behaviors they studied. The interesting part is in the exceptions to this rule, because that is where gender bias is found.

Let’s start with what behaviors were viewed more often in men and women evaluations. For men, managing people was mentioned much more often, and nearly always positively. For women, communication style was mentioned much more often, and nearly always negatively. In fact, the (common) negative views of women’s communication style were the exact opposite of the (rare) negative views of men’s communication style. Women were too aggressive and outspoken, said the performance valuations, and men were too modest.

Does that match our everyday experience of how women and men communicate? Perhaps not, and maybe it suggests that they were held to different standards. Women are supposed to be modest and soft spoken; men are supposed to be assertive. This is so conventional that it is remarkable to find such a double standard in a firm committed to fair evaluation.

Now let’s see what behaviors were valued differently in men and women evaluations. This is also very conventional. Being a helpful person was viewed similarly often in men and women and typically produced the second-highest rating. A four out of five, so promotion possible but not a sure thing. Being a person who takes charge was much viewed more often in men and was strongly linked to a top rating in men but to a second-highest rating in women.

Again, we see the same convention play itself out. Men should communicate assertively, they should take charge, and they should be promoted for this. Women being helpful and taking charge is OK, but not great.

Language matters because it shapes thinking, which in turn affects how people are evaluated by others and given responsibilities at work. It is doubtful that a technology firm benefits from having evaluation and promotion practices that correspond to old-fashioned gender roles, and it is certain that such practices are not fair. To change them, it is necessary to change how managers view, value, and talk about behaviors at work.

Correll, S.J., K.R. Weisshaar, A.T. Wynn, J.D. Wehner. 2020. Inside the Black Box of Organizational Life: The Gendered Language of Performance Assessment. American Sociological Review 85(6) 1022-1050.