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A study of bias in women's performance reviews.

The performance bias affecting women working remotely

Men and women often experience the workplace differently, whether in-person or virtually. Three kinds of bias often creep into the performance-review process, in ways that disproportionately affect women, especially when it comes to hybrid/remote work,  Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio, chair of the Executive Leadership Research Initiative for Women and Minority Attorneys, at Harvard Law School, writes in the Harvard Business Review.

These biases are experience bias, where reviewers overvalue tasks that are easy to define like speaking at conferences: proximity bias, which leads reviewers to think that other people do the most important work and not the person reviewed: and in-group/out-group bias, which leads reviewers to give preferential treatment to people they they themselves identify with. 

“When women take advantage of hybrid and remote work options today, they become subject to biases that creep into the performance-review process and cause them to be judged unfairly.”

Cecchi-Dimeglio writes that studies show  experience bias, like overvaluing tasks that are easy to define, was prevalent in performance reviews. In a reorganization, men, on the whole, had chosen work that was much easier to recognize. 

“They spent more time on highly visible external tasks, such as speaking at industry conferences and giving interviews to journalists, bloggers, and podcasters.”  

“Meanwhile, women spent more time on much less visible internal tasks, such as boosting team cohesion to help get projects back on track and providing psychologically safe spaces for team members to ask questions and process elements of the reorganization that were taking place at the company.” 


“It’s easy to understand, for example, how somebody who has presented at a major conference (probably a man) might have immediately provided a measurable benefit to the company. In fact, men were three times more likely than women to speak at outside events.” 

She writes that it is more difficult to measure and evaluate the work that somebody (probably a woman) has begun to do in a long-term effort to repair team dynamics or prevent deep-rooted problems that might ultimately affect hundreds or thousands of employees. 

The study shows that  reviewers praised the men more regularly in their performance reviews for having succeeded in their work. 

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“More specifically, men who reviewed other men assessed them 12% higher than women, on average, as compared to when women reviewed both men and other women.”

The study included testing several interventions designed to help reviewers to correct this bias. Some interventions failed but two had a statistically significant chance (with a 95% confidence interval or above) of reducing biases at this company.

“The first was for managers to help employees set individualized goals with tailored metrics and then ask them to track what they had done every week — and to do it on a virtual whiteboard that the rest of the team and the directors up the chain could see.” 

“In this way, people who had contributed to less-easily-defined outcomes, such as team cohesion, could still point to a record of their efforts over time for all to see. This whiteboard could record important work even if it wasn’t easily described in terms of traditional goals and metrics. This was helpful come performance review time.” 


The second intervention was designed to help employees become better at describing their own efforts. 

“At the beginning of the week, for each project they were working on, employees were asked to provide two different estimates on their virtual whiteboard: how long each task would take to accomplish and its level of difficulty (high, medium, or low).” 

At the end of each week, employees were asked to revisit their estimates, note how their time was actually allocated and how difficult the task ended up being, and reflect on the reasons for the differences between their forecasts and “actuals.” 

“Initially, the data showed that women were more accurate in their estimations of the time a task would take, although they often overestimated the difficulty of tasks. Meanwhile, men underestimated both the time a task would take and its difficulty.”

 The intervention increased the likelihood of women accurately identifying the difficulty of the task  by a factor of 28, while men were 12.5 times more likely to do so.

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“Additionally, men became 7 times more likely to accurately estimate the time required for a task, whereas there was no significant difference in this aspect for women.”

Another form of bias was proximity bias, or the tendency to think that people who are in your physical orbit do the most important work. The study shows that hybrid work exacerbates this bias penalizing women as men in the study were more likely than women to come into the office. 

“Reviewers tended to express skepticism, or at least confusion, about what women did when they worked remotely, whereas they tended to give men the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were more focused and productive.”


“Even when women came into the office as often as men, reviewers assigned them achievement levels that were a statistically significant 3% lower than those they assigned to the men. And when women came into the office more than men, reviewers seemed to believe that they were doing so only because they were looking out for themselves and wanted to “have a seat at the table” to defend their position in the reorganization of the company.” 

“Conversely, when men came into the office an above-average amount, they were seen as strong leaders.”

A survey of preferences among several choices: more online gatherings, an “anchor day” when everybody was expected to be in the office, or more offsite team-building opportunities showed employees’ preferred the company to create an anchor day. This led to a statistically significant drop in proximity bias that was observable in the next performance-review cycle.

The third form of bias was in-group/out-group bias, giving preferential treatment to people you feel belong to a group you identify with. 

“Not surprisingly, employees who were working remotely, and particularly those who had moved away from the office and across state lines, were increasingly seen as members of the out-group — and they had annual performance review scores that were lower by an average of 20%.”

Both men and women were subject to this form of bias, but because men tend to be seen more readily as leaders, they were more easily able to join the in-group than women, Cecchi-Dimeglio writes.

To increase a sense of belonging, the company launched a campaign to make staffers identify with the company as a team. This practice led to a 14% increase in feelings of belonging to the in-group, and a 17% increase in employees’ perceptions of which other employees belong to the in-group. 

“At performance-review time, reviewers were also asked to recall one thing they had in common with the person they were about to review. We found that this simple intervention, which meant that reviews began from a point of commonality, decreased the gender discrimination in the company’s performance reviews by several percentages,”

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