A Tale of Two Perspectives: How Men and Women
Experience Performance Management Differently

We are extremely grateful to Workhuman for sponsoring this research!

Why we care:

Organizational support for gender diversity – or at least the talk around it at executive levels – is at an all-time high. Yet, women still remain woefully under-represented at nearly every level in organizations.

While organizations have taken steps – particularly in performance management – to address this disparity, the difference grows steadily at each level as more men are promoted than women. The result: men end up holding more than 60% of managerial positions, while women hold less than 40%.1

Clearly, something happens – something fundamentally different – that changes the upward career trajectory of women, even when they enter their careers on equal footing to men. While there are many potential factors, including work/life integration, employee benefits, leadership development, etc., we know that one of the biggest factors is performance management, as it influences both compensation and promotion decisions. Given this, we wanted to investigate what might be happening differently for the different genders2 within performance management.

Hypothesis:

Our hypothesis for this study:  

Given the impact of performance management practices on promotion, it is likely that men and women are having different experiences within performance management that are negatively influencing women’s advancement in organizations.

The Myth of Gender Differences

Often times, we assume that because a practice is fair on the surface that it must result in similarly fair outcomes for men and women. Thus, when we see differences, it can be easy to assume that the individuals are different in some fundamental manner. This is the case with men and women in the workforce, where different outcomes have been explained away by apparent “fixed” gender differences such as women desiring to leave work more frequently to care for family or women not having the same expertise or competence – especially in critical fields.

Yet, when we dig into these arguments, we find they don’t hold water.

For example, suggesting that women are not as competent as their male counterparts ignores the fact that women continue to earn more college3 and graduate degrees4 than men. In addition, while women earn roughly half of the science and engineering (S&E) undergraduate degrees, they are less likely than their male collegiate peers to actually end up participating in S&E occupations.5

Further, arguing that women want something fundamentally different from their careers and that they are leaving the workforce in droves to have babies and take care of family is not a true representation of turnover rates. Especially when we see that women and men have similar turnover intentions and only 2% of women leaving the workforce do so to focus on family.6

The truth is, the different outcomes that we see are not due to innate gender differences, but instead are a result of the different ways in which men and women experience work. From fundamentally different interactions with managers and peers to policies that inadvertently hinder women’s progress, women experience the workplace differently.

Good Intentions: We have Paved a PM System Full of Them 

Fairness has been a foundational concept in performance management since we started measuring performance. In fact, we began measuring production to help organizations make administrative decisions and determine how much to pay people (an idea still foundational in pay-for-performance approaches). However, as work has changed – so too has performance management.

In the last 7 – 10 years, organizations have taken many steps – often times dramatic ones – to modernize their approach to performance management. While the primary aim of performance management redesign was to provide a more growth-oriented approach to drive performance, many of the changes also touched upon ideas of fairness.

Modern performance management extends the concept of fairness beyond a paycheck, including:

  • Capturing a more accurate picture of performance by rethinking ratings and expanding performance evaluation criteria
  • Gaining a more holistic perspective of the individual through more frequent conversations between the manager and employee
  • Decreasing bias by increasing the frequency and the sources of feedback (e.g., crowd-sourced feedback)
  • Ensuring that individuals are evaluated against relevant objectives by setting and updating goals in a continuous and agile manner
  • Leveraging performance management to develop employees in more meaningful ways (e.g., starting out with career or development goals before determining performance goals, assessing managers on the extent to which they develop employees)

All of these changes – and many others – have been made with good intentions. Organizations want to create performance management systems that provide a more accurate picture of performance and foster an environment that is inclusive, fair and equitable to support growth and development. Yet, good intentions and superficial fairness does not mean these practices are experienced by men and women similarly in their day-to-day interactions within organizations.

Creating a Level Playing Field  

 

Given these different organizational realities, organizations need to better understand how their practices play out in reality for women and men. This will likely require organizations to rethink (at a minimum):

  • The relationship between managers and employees and how managers are held accountable to developing talent
  • The access that all employees have to relevant, value-added information, feedback and critical people / influential networks needed for development and performance
  • The underlying theory that employee development is the primary responsibility of employees, when men and women – as a result of their relationships – have access to different types of development and may have different levels of confidence in pursuing development of their own accord7
  • The way organizations define, identify, and measure disparities between men and women
  • The lack of confidence and faith that women – across levels – have in their organizations to actively address gender diversity in real, meaningful ways

These changes could have profound impact on how women experience performance management and, ultimately, move the needle on the advancement of women in organizations.

This Project:

With this study, we want to gain an understanding of the ways in which men and women experience performance management differently. More importantly, we want to uncover ways organizations can move beyond superficial fairness and ensure that men and women are experiencing the same organizational reality. In our initial discussions, several themes have emerged that will serve as the basis for the research:

Participate:

As with all our studies, we would love your participation. First, we would love your thoughts on what we have shared thus far. Feel free to use the comments section below – we do read them. If you would rather not share publicly, feel free to drop us a note at [email protected]

Second, we’d love you to follow this study. When you follow a study, we add you to a mailing list that keeps you updated on what we’re finding and where we’re going. We’ll send you the latest research, and we’ll invite you to open discussions, surveys, and other opportunities for interaction. This study will have the following outputs over the next six months:

  • Premise:  January 2020
  • Key Findings Infographic: March 2020
  • Final Report: March 2020
* indicates required

1 “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co. / Lean In, 2018.
2 While there are clearly more than two genders in the workplace, the majority of the existing research focuses on women and men. In the future, we see an opportunity to also include other genders in this analysis, but are not able to do that for this study.
3 Since the late 1990’s, women have earned about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees. Source: https://ngcproject.org/statistics
4 In 2017 women earned 53% of all graduate degrees received. Source: https://www.statista.com/chart/15685/doctoral-degrees-awarded-by-broad-field-and-gender-in-the-us/
5 Half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees were earned by women in 2015. Yet, women made up only 28% of the science and engineering workforce. However, it should be noted that while women received over half of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the biological sciences in 2015, they received far fewer in the computer sciences (18%), engineering (20%), physical sciences (39%) and mathematics (43%). Source: https://ngcproject.org/statistics
6 “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co. / Lean In, 2018.
7 “The Confidence Gap,” Kay, K. & Shipman, C., The Atlantic, 2014.

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