If companies are looking for gender bias in their workplace, here’s one place they may want to start: feedback.

Research suggests that men and women are assessed very differently at work. Specifically, managers are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong, and their accomplishments are more likely than men’s to be seen as the result of team, rather than individual efforts, finds new research from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Those trends appear to hold up whether the boss making the assessments is male or female.

The researchers say the differences are products of unconscious bias—hidden beliefs about women’s capabilities that can influence important workplace decisions. For instance, if bosses expect women to be more team-oriented and men to be more independent in their jobs, women may be more likely to be shunted into support roles rather than landing the core positions that lead to executive jobs, the researchers say. Many employees internalize these stereotypes over time, they add, sapping some women’s confidence that they or their female co-workers can handle more-demanding positions.

“Stereotypes shape our perceptions of competence. We hold women to a higher standard in evaluations, and women also tend to evaluate themselves to a higher bar,” says Caroline Simard, director of research at the Clayman Institute. Such hidden biases could ultimately lead to “cumulative disadvantage over a woman’s career over time, resulting in lower access to key leadership positions and stretch assignments, advancement and pay,” she says.

 

Big effect

The Stanford team is analyzing the language of hundreds of performance reviews from four technology and professional-services firms. The research is continuing, but so far it has shown that women received 2.5 times the amount of feedback men did about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as “your speaking style is off-putting,” the study found. Women were described as “supportive,” “collaborative” and “helpful” nearly twice as often as men, and women’s reviews had more than twice the references to team accomplishments, rather than individual achievements.

Men’s reviews contained twice as many words related to assertiveness, independence and self-confidence—words like “drive,” “transform,” “innovate” and “tackle.” Men also received three times as much feedback linked to a specific business outcome, and twice the number of references to their technical expertise.

“The magnitude of some of the differences and how consistent they were across the different samples was shocking,” Dr. Simard says.

Read more about how such differences matter in promotions: http://www.wsj.com/articles/gender-bias-at-work-turns-up-in-feedback-1443600759

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