Do Vague Performance Reviews Leave Women at a Disadva
Hand touching screen with customer service evaluation form.

Do Vague Performance Reviews Leave Women at a Disadvantage?

Walk into any Sephora and you are confronted by thousands of products. Eyeshadows, lipsticks, concealers: How do you know which brand is best for your situation? You read the online reviews, of course.

Does this concealer stand up to an hour-long spin class? Will this hairspray hold your bun in place during a hurricane? Chances are an online blogger has tested it, written a review, and posted it online (complete with a YouTube tutorial) for your reference.

In the workplace, do things work the same way when an employee is seeking feedback on their work performance? Is the feedback we are receiving valuable and specific enough to help our career development and promote mobility within our travel organizations?

According an article in the Harvard Business Review in April 2016, women are less likely to receive feedback tied to a specific outcome than men, both when it comes to receiving praise and development advice.

“When we analyzed a sample of performance evaluations of men and women across three high-tech companies and a professional services firm, we found that women consistently received less feedback tied to business outcomes,” the article stated. “The vague feedback lets women know they are generally doing a good job, but it does not identify which specific actions are valued or the positive impact of their accomplishments. We also learned that vague feedback is correlated with lower performance review ratings for women—but not for men. In other words, vague feedback can specifically hold women back.”

In an analysis of more than 200 performance reviews, the article’s authors said vague praise dotted the majority of reviews for female staff (57 percent versus 43 percent). Comments such as, “You had a great year” were typically written for women, whereas men’s reviews tended to focus on actionable issues that were linked to business outcomes.

When women did receive specific feedback, it predominantly focused on communication style. It is also where the most negative feedback was found. “Comments such as ‘Her speaking style and approach can be off-putting to some people at times’ point to a manager’s concern but do not offer ways to improve specific behaviors,” the article states. “This kind of feedback was frequently offered in women’s reviews. In fact, 76 percent of references to being ‘too aggressive’ happened in women’s reviews, versus 24 percent in men’s.”

If performance reviews do not focus on what skills need attention, areas of opportunity, or professional strengths, women are at a subtle disadvantage for promotion. The lack of support and direction may also lead women to leave companies or change careers, the report said.

Where specific feedback was offered, dramatic results were found. The authors profiled a year-long leadership development program launched by Microsoft that focused on clear, actionable feedback. At the end of the program’s pilot, 17 women were promoted into leadership roles.

At WINiT, we have set a goal of increasing current membership levels by 2,000 members by the end of 2017. Instead of writing an online review, we are asking that all members help us achieve this goal by referring at least one colleague, friend, or family member to our organization.

If an extra 2,000 women are able to take advantage of the WINiT Mentor Program, online Career Board, and free educational resources, how much longer do you think vague performance reviews and the other statistics reflected in the Harvard Business Review article would continue?

Trisha Wheeler is a member of WINiT, a 2,800-member nonprofit organization founded in 2014 to support and empower women in the meeting, event, travel, and exhibition industries through access to career development opportunities and resources. Find out more.  

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