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 (PM) – 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 PM.
Our hypothesis for this study:
Given the impact of performance management practices on promotion, it's likely that men and women are having different experiences within PM that are negatively influencing women’s advancement in organizations.
The myth of gender differences
Oftentimes, we assume that, because a practice is fair on the surface, 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're 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 they're 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 aren't 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've paved a PM system full of them
Fairness has been a foundational concept in PM 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 PM.
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 PM redesign was to provide a more growth-oriented approach to drive performance, many of the changes also touched upon ideas of fairness.
Modern PM 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., crowdsourced feedback)
- Ensuring that individuals are evaluated against relevant objectives by setting and updating goals in a continuous and agile manner
- Leveraging PM 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 PM 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 PM and, ultimately, move the needle on the advancement of women in organizations.
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 serve as the basis for the research:
Stacia is a Co-founder and Principal Analyst for RedThread Research and focuses on employee engagement/experience, leadership, DE&I, people analytics, and HR technology. A frequent speaker and writer, her work has been featured in Fortune, Forbes, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal as well as in numerous HR trade publications. She has been listed as a Top 100 influencer in HR Technology and in D&I. Stacia has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from the London School of Economics.
- “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co. / Lean In, 2018.
- While there are clearly more than 2 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.
- Since the late 1990s, women have earned about 57% of all bachelor’s degrees. Source: https://ngcproject.org/statistics
- 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/
- 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
- “Women in the Workplace,” McKinsey & Co. / Lean In, 2018.
- “The Confidence Gap,” Kay, K. & Shipman, C., The Atlantic, 2014.