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Department of Political and Social Sciences

How ranking performance can hurt women

SPS Professor, Klarita Gërxhani publishes in the Harvard Business Review.

20/12/2021 | Research

To achieve gender equity in the workplace it is not enough to hire more women. It is equally critical to address disparities in how employees are evaluated and promoted once they are on board. In an article just published in the Harvard Business Review, Klarita Gërxhani makes this case using her recent research. A key finding: competitive evaluation systems in which employees are ranked against one another can cause men to perform better and women to perform worse – and this on tasks for which their performance would otherwise be roughly the same. 

Gërxhani and collaborators have conducted many experiments over the years, and have compared results across several countries. They have repeatedly found women to be disadvantaged in situations of evaluation or competition for recognition.

In a workplace environment - whether corporate, academic or the public sector – “we evaluate each other constantly, at all levels. This is part of modern social interaction.” The experimental set-up had participants try to solve a set of problems; one group was told they would be ranked, and the other group was not told this. Women performed worse than men within the groups that were expecting their performance to be judged and ranked. Moreover, the data suggests that men’s beliefs (whether conscious or subconscious) that they perform better than women in competitive environments lead them to excel, while women’s adherence to the stereotypical gender norm of prioritising not harming others leads them to perform worse.

What is more, men tried even harder when they thought their evaluators would be male. Gërxhani and co-authors plan to explore possible explanations for this, starting with the documented concept of ‘masculinity threats’ – that is, the phenomenon whereby men feel more pressure to display masculinity in situations where they feel their masculinity threatened, such as being judged by another man.

The upshot is, explains Gërxhani, “we continue to lose lots of talent and potential due to beliefs and behaviours that are deeply engrained.”

Addressing the Harvard Business Review’s readership in particular, Gërxhani urges managers and evaluators in general to take a closer look at the ‘default’ and traditional performance evaluation system in place. She notes that the clearer the evaluation criteria, the less room for unconscious biases and assumptions to affect rankings. An even bolder move would be for organisations to avoid focusing on social comparisons that pit people against each other, and instead evaluate employees in terms of their individual development over time.

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