Four Types of Bias that Keep Women from Getting Promoted

Young Female Executive In Deep Thought - IsolatedBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

Everyone is subject to bias – we all have them, and we are all affected by them. Our task in the 21st century is to acknowledge our implicit assumptions about others (and ourselves) and examine how they may be holding others back (or propelling others forward).

In the corporate setting, people in the majority group can gloss over how their biases may be keeping people in non-dominant groups from advancing. A new white paper [PDF] by consulting group Cook Ross takes a look at the biases that keep women from getting promotions during the review process. The report author, Leslie Traub, Chief Consulting Officer at Cook Ross, writes that, at the entry level, the workforce at many companies approach gender parity. But over time, that diversity thins out.

One reason why is that bias during the review process affects whether women are recognized, valued, and, ultimately, promoted or retained. The report says, “Performance reviews that do not objectively reflect employee contributions are one of the main obstacles to retaining under-represented groups. When the performance review process is out of balance, opportunities for advancement narrow and in turn, narrow an organization’s diversity pipeline.”

Cook writes that reducing bias is everyone’s responsibility. “A shared recognition that bias exists in every decision and a collective and personal commitment to its reduction are the only antidotes to unchecked bias hijacking all of our critical decisions,” she says.

The benefits of mitigating bias will result a more diverse, competitive workforce. Here are four types of bias that keep women and other minority groups in the workforce from advancing. Once we recognize the barriers that keep women from getting ahead, we can begin dismantling them.

1. Rater Bias

The white paper focuses on biases that come into play during the performance review process, and the first one is fairly straightforward. Rater Bias occurs when the person doing the review lets assumptions about the employee cloud an accurate assessment of their performance or if they use those assumptions to pass judgment on their likelihood to be interested advancement.

An example of this might be a manager not sharing information with a working mother about a promotion because of a perception that she won’t want it anyway, since it could interfere with her family responsibilities.

Rater bias can be even less explicit – for example, an Australian study mentioned in the white paper showed that reviews between men tended to be more collegial, with the reviewer using the term “we” more frequently. These conversations were more likely to focus on the employee’s future. On the other hand, reviews between a male reviewer and female employee focused less on career opportunities, and included more usage of the word “you.” The male reviewers were simply more comfortable with male employees, and that translated – whether deliberately or not – to better advancement opportunities for the men.

Traub writes, “Recognizing our biases and their power over our decision-making gives us the opportunity to pause, question, and reassess our decisions so we may strive for objectivity. Managers with deciding power over the diversity pipeline as well as the potential career paths of employees are especially responsible for managing their biases.”

2. Self-Rater Bias

Just as raters’ biases can influence how employees performance is ranked, so too can our own biases get in the way of our own advancement, and this is known as Self-Rater Bias.

We may perceive ourselves to be lacking in a specific skill set or we may have insecurities about certain factors in our own background – but if that hasn’t had an affect on the quality of our work it shouldn’t influence our personal evaluation. For example, the Cook Ross white paper uses the example of someone who feels insecure about being an experienced hire rather than having grown up in their firm – while they are nevertheless a high performer.

“Misrepresentation in the self-rating of performance management also can potentially skew an evaluation,” Traub writes. “Skewed self perception can cause weakness in the talent pipeline.”

3. Structural Bias

Structural Bias occurs when company cultures prize certain traits or abilities over others, and those traits or abilities tend to be more prevalent in the dominant group. For example, the report explains, “Research on competency models shows that these models have tended to over-represent more masculine leadership characteristics and under-represent more feminine characteristics.”

It continues, “If the competency model values competencies that are innately skewed toward men (or the dominant culture), women (or members of the non-dominant culture) will either try to adopt those majority group behaviors and risk inauthenticity, or they could receive lower ratings than men.”

For example, does your company tend to reward people for managing in a more top-down, authoritarian manner? Many women may have a different, yet equally effective, way of managing their teams. If women are hindered in their advancement because they do not conform to this management style, they are subject to an unfair bias. It’s important for managers to reconsider why certain traits are considered attractive in an employee.

“Additionally, the work unit and organization must question whether the values that get reflected in these contribution areas contain any kind of inherent gender or cultural bias,” Traub writes.

4. Calibration Bias

Finally, Calibration Bias results when companies use different standards to evaluate individuals relative to one another. For example, a man may be praised for being “assertive,” while a woman may be judged harshly for possessing the same trait.

Similarly, a group may spend a lot of time debating a woman’s overall score on her performance evaluation, nitpicking and focusing on weaknesses, while that same group may, in essence, rubber stamp a man’s evaluation without much thought simply because he blends into the norm for the company’s workforce. It’s important to recognize that different people have different strengths and weaknesses, but it’s also important to ensure they are being evaluated on the same scale.

Ultimately, any kind of bias ultimately harms an organization. Driving skilled women out of the workforce through unfair promotion or evaluation practices dilutes the strength of the company’s talent overall.

“Every manager is responsible for delivering the most objective review possible, and employees are responsible for considering their relationship to self promotion and self evaluating accordingly. Nevertheless, it is the responsibility of the collective leadership community in an organization to recognize the impact of bias on their process, and to collectively commit to mitigating it,” Traub writes.

By ensuring that every manager – male and female – takes stock of their own biases around evaluation, companies can ensure they retain and promote the people who will help them be competitive in the global marketplace.

1 Response

  1. This is an interesting assessment of variables that affect how women are perceived and assessed for the value that they bring to the workplace. It is informative. Yet, I would ask us to be forward thinking and conscious in our use of words that perpetuate stereotype and marginalization. While research results are documented here, I see no reason for us to embellish the study by saying, “white” paper. That is the terminology in the academy and corporations that is a remnant of domination and inequity. There is no need to refer to such a published work with that terminology. It is a research paper or research study. The embedded affinity for “whiteness” with legitimacy is disempowering to cultures that are historically marginalized in our culture. As Black Life Coaches, we do not need to speak disempowerment to our client base or audience. Even if the researcher calls it a “white” paper, our reference can be “study”, or “research paper”.