How ranking achievements can harm women

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When it comes to gender equality in the workplace, many companies focus primarily on hiring more women. However, in order to achieve fairer representation, it is also important to examine the differences in the evaluation and promotion of employees once they are on board. In this article, the authors discuss their most recent research on the subject, which has shown that competitive scoring systems in which employees are rated against one another can result in men doing better and women worse (in a task for which their performance would otherwise be roughly same). They point out that this is likely due to ingrained stereotypes that lead men to believe they are better than women in competitive environments and that lead women to give a priority to avoiding harming others. Based on these results, the authors argue that companies should raise awareness of the potential harm from ranking employees and that they should consider either adapting or completely overhauling existing performance appraisal systems to focus more on individual progress and less on social comparisons to concentrate.

Great efforts have been made to improve gender equality in recruitment. Unfortunately, while these initiatives can help organizations attract more female candidates, they often fall short in terms of retention and development. There are many reasons for this, of course – but one of the key systemic factors driving this ongoing challenge is the way companies approach performance reviews and promotions.

In particular, many organizations use some type of ranking mechanism to assess employee performance relative to one another and then determine advancement accordingly. Previous research has explored various Professionals and disadvantage of these systems, but one area that has remained largely unexplored is their implications for gender representation.

How could a supposedly objective, impartial rating system promote inequality? A performance management system in which employees are classified against each other creates a special competitive environment. Previous studies have shown that men and women may react differently to competition, but these studies have mainly looked at environments in which people compete for scarce physical or financial resources. Performance rankings do not necessarily involve competition for material resources, but they do create competition for another type of resource: social status.

To better understand how hierarchy of social status affects men and women differently (and, consequently, how these rating systems can hamper organizations’ efforts to retain women), my colleagues and I conducted a series of laboratory experiments with students in Spainwhich I later replicated in Italy and the Netherlands. Participants were asked to do simple tasks in which they looked for numbers and added them up, and were told that for each problem they solved, they would receive one euro. This meant that they all had the same incentive to solve the problems and thus did not compete for funding. We then told a group of participants that a peer would rank them based on their performance against one another, while participants in the other group were not told anything, which allowed us to isolate the effects of ranking on social status.

To be clear, the only thing that changed between the two groups was whether or not they were notified in advance that they would be ranked – both received exactly the same financial incentives. Nonetheless, we found that just anticipating their ranking made a significant impact on participants’ performance, and that the effects were markedly different for men and women. When participants were not notified that they would be included in the ranking, men and women performed essentially on the same level. But when they were specifically told that they would be ranked, men did better than those who were not told, while women did much worse. This led to significant discrepancies in net performance: when they knew they were being placed in the leaderboard, male participants solved almost 40% more problems than female participants.

What could be the cause of this significant gender difference? My colleagues and I conducted another series of experiments to investigate this question, and while our analysis is still being revised, our preliminary results suggest that the effect may stem from ingrained stereotypes and beliefs among men and women. Specifically, our data suggests that men’s belief (whether consciously or unconsciously) that they perform better than women in competitive environments leads them to outperform, while adherence to the stereotypical gender norm of prioritizing others leads to that they do worse. This is important because it suggests that the gender differences created by competitive environments cannot simply be attributed to the misconception that women are “inherently” less competitive than men. Rather, these environments trigger socially constructed prejudices – that is, the assumption that men are superior and women should be kind to others – which in turn leads to gender-specific performance differences.

Interestingly, in a Follow-up study, we found that when participants were told that the peer who would rank them was male, men had a much stronger desire than women to maintain this competitive position, while when the ranger was female, men and women were similar The ranking system indicated preferences for further use. While identifying the cause of this difference was beyond the scope of our research, these results suggest that gender differences in terms of competitive scoring systems may be related to the well-documented concept of “Threats of masculinity“- this is the phenomenon in which men feel more pressure to show masculinity in situations that threaten their masculinity, for example when they are judged by another man.

In conclusion, these results suggest that competitive social ranking systems can have a huge impact on performance, and more importantly, they can be great different Effects on men and women. However, a world in which competition is completely eliminated is hard to imagine – so how can companies take advantage of a competitive workplace environment without causing their female employees to fail?

Create awareness

First, as with any form of inequality, the first step in addressing it is realizing that it is there. Managers need to work to raise awareness of how traditional “standard” rating systems can inadvertently create an environment that causes men to perform better and women to perform worse. Rather than simply writing off underperformance as an individual deficiency, or worse, ascribing harmful gender stereotypes, leaders should figure out how their performance appraisal systems actually contribute to the problem.

Above all, this means recognizing not only the potential disadvantages of competitive systems in general, but also the ways in which competition for social status can harm women workers in particular. A system may not appear competitive if it does not involve a zero-sum battle for material resources (such as budget, salary, or the corner office), but the element of social status alone can be enough to create significant gender differences.

Consider alternative rating systems

Next, if possible, organizations should consider whether their rating systems are due for an overhaul. It may seem radical, but a cost-benefit analysis of the effects of competitive models on the workforce as a whole (and in particular how the benefits to men’s performance may be outweighed by the negative effects on women’s performance and motivation) can be of value illustrate trying something new. Many companies have pioneered effective, alternative approaches such as temporal promotion evaluations comparing individuals with their past performance rather than their peers. Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, for example, is known for evaluating employees in terms of their development over time, rather than focusing on social comparisons that pit people against each other.

Adapt existing systems

And when a complete rethinking of existing competitive models is off the table, there are still steps managers can take to minimize the damage. In particular, our research suggests that one of the main reasons women perform poorly in competitive environments is because they are expected to be considerate, which results in them deliberately failing for fear that their success might negatively affect others. To address this, managers can encourage their teams to implement guidelines and training aimed at addressing gender stereotypes such as: B. the belief that women should be empathetic, good-natured, and caring; while men should be independent, aggressive, competitive, and risk takers.

In addition, organizations should work to establish objective and clear assessment criteria so that unconscious biases and assumptions are less likely to lead to performance assessments. While it may seem obvious, measures like these can help reduce ambiguity and so minimize the power of harmful stereotypes.

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from Amazon to GE, many companies have long defended rating systems in which ratings and promotions are based on comparisons between employees. And while these models can be effective in some situations, many of their proponents overlook an important side effect: competitive systems can create significant gender gaps, preventing companies from keeping female team members who could be highly productive under an alternate system. To make real progress in reducing gender inequality in the workplace, organizations need to understand how their own internal systems can contribute to the problem and work to improve them.


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