Three Techniques to Minimize Gender Bias in Performance Evaluations

May 26, 2016

Most business leaders agree that “socially diverse groups … are more innovative than homogeneous groups.” Yet, as McKinsey & Co. recently concluded, “Corporate America is not on a path to gender equality.” Women are not represented at senior levels of businesses in numbers comparable to men, and the reason is straightforward: those who evaluate women’s career advancement often have (unconscious) biases against women.

Meaningful progress toward gender diversity in America’s C-suites, therefore, depends on eliminating gender bias from our evaluation processes. Here are three techniques to get you there:

Implement Blind Performance Reviews

Performance reviews should be made as blind as possible. To achieve this, we suggest adopting what orchestras implemented to remove gender bias from their own processes.

In 1963, the 104-member Chicago Symphony Orchestra had only three women; the New York Philharmonic had none. By 2015, Chicago had 41 women, New York had 44, and the top 250 American orchestras were about 50 percent women. Their gender composition changed because orchestras began conducting auditions from behind screens, so the audition judges are “blind” to a performer’s gender. There are three ways businesses can apply the blind audition concept to performance evaluations and promotions.

  •  If an employee is seeking a promotion, human resources should rewrite all résumés to eliminate indications of the applicants’ gender. This will ensure the pool of all candidates is filled in a gender-neutral way.
  • Evaluation forms that ask open-ended questions should be eliminated. Force evaluators to focus on job-related competencies, without providing an opportunity to make subjective comments about personality, potential, and fit.
  •  Projects should be assigned without regard to gender. A woman in your law firm or law department should never find herself lacking the experience to move up when a man of comparable seniority has had that experience.

Try Slow Thinking

Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman distinguishes two modes of thinking: fast and slow. Fast thinking relies on stereotypes and implicit biases; it is instinctual and emotional. Slow thinking requires thoughtful and logical decisions. We have three suggestions to ensure evaluators use slow thinking.

  • Pair female and male evaluators who discuss their views before submitting collective evaluations.
  • Have joint rather than separate evaluations, so comparative assessments (slow thinking) can be utilized.
  • Train someone to review the evaluations for gender bias patterns in the language used, standards applied, and expectations imposed. This will further encourage slow thinking.

Outsmart Mind Bugs

Finally, a gender-neutral review process must eliminate the implicit biases – “mind bugs” – that persist in society. According to the developers of the Implicit Association Tests (“IAT”), these “dauntingly persistent” mind bugs are best eliminated by outsmarting them. We can apply this insight to performance evaluations in two ways.

  • Evaluators should understand that gender bias is often a blind spot – an unconscious tendency to make discriminatory mental associations. To increase awareness, evaluators should take the IAT for Gender-Career to ensure they are familiar with their own gender biases and prompt slow thinking when making recommendations.
  • Change the way evaluations are done by appointing a review committee to review evaluations and evaluators and to periodically survey employees. Surveys provide feedback on team compositions, comparability of assignments, peer compensation parity, and gender fairness of managers and colleagues. With an effective review committee in place, any instinctual preferences can be outsmarted.

These suggestions are useful starting points for businesses to address gender bias. Focusing on the insights that underlie these suggestions will allow you to reduce unconscious bias in a way that works for your business.

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About The Author

Andrea S. Kramer (“Andie”) and Alton B. Harris (“Al”) are married and former law partners. For more than 30 years they have worked to promote gender equality in the workplace, mentoring thousands of women, and serving as sounding boards for each other’s ideas. They are co-authors of Breaking Through Bias: Communication Techniques for Women to Succeed at Work (Bibliomotion, May 2016). Learn more at or follow them on Twitter at @AndieandAl.

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