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Avoid Gender Bias in Performance Reviews

By William Vogeler, Esq. on April 18, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Lady Justice was not always blindfolded, although she served the same purpose.

"Sight was the desired state," wrote Professors Judith Resnik and Dennis Curtis, "connected to insight, light and the rays of God's sun."

In their treatise Representing Justice, the authors provide a historic look at Lady Justice and the idea that justice is blind. Even with eyes wide open, she has always been fair.

But according to an article in Harvard Business Review, fairness is still evolving in the workplace. Performance reviews have not been fair towards women.

Gender Bias

"The good news is that the performance appraisal system can be fixed," wrote Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio. "By using more-objective criteria, involving a broader group of reviewers, and adjusting the frequency of reviews, it is possible to remove subjective biases that creep in."

Cecchi-Dimeglio, a behavioral economist with the Center for the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, said women are 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback in performance reviews than men. She said it's because annual evaluations are subjective, which "opens the door to gender bias."

Among other findings, Cecchi-Dimeglio said biases lead to double standards. For example, one manager said a woman seemed to "shrink when she's around others, and especially around clients, she needs to be more self-confident."

A man, on the other hand, had the same problem but received a subjectively different review. He needed to "develop his natural ability to work with people," she said.

Level the Playing Field

Citing research on women in leadership, Cecchi-Dimeglio said employers can level the playing field by redesigning appraisal systems. While using gender-neutral criteria, she said employers can:

  • Invest in systems that crowdsource and continually collect data about the performance of people and teams.
  • Train appraisers to give feedback about specific criteria that the employer and employee agree to.
  • Develop an appraisal scale that specifies what an employee must start doing, stop doing, or continue doing by tenure and project cycle.

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