3 Performance Review Mistakes Detrimental to Women Leaders

CoachHub · 9 March 2023 · 9 min read

Performance management is a routine phase in an employee’s workplace experience where women traditionally encounter marginalization. Unfortunately, many organizations, especially in sectors with male-dominated leadership, often perpetuate conscious and unconscious biases through performance management. Tools like performance reviews and assessments can become barriers that prevent women from advancing in their careers. Therefore, examining how your workplace approaches performance management is vital to providing women with the tools and support to succeed in your organization. From what we know about the challenges women face in navigating the corporate landscape, we can identify three mistakes that arise in performance management.

Mistake 1: Non-inclusive performance management policy

It is crucial to address gender bias during the performance management stages of an employee’s journey. Conscious and unconscious biases throughout this process can negatively affect women’s career trajectories. For example, a Stanford University study confirms that women receive significantly more negative feedback than men. Furthermore, the study shows that even when qualifications and behaviors are consistent, men receive higher performance ratings than women.

How to correct it:

  • Promote healthy discourse: Leaders need to learn from their team. Use feedback to gauge feelings of inclusiveness and psychological safety. Learn about individuals’ leadership styles, including leadership traits, like empathy, humility and persuasiveness, which are more traditionally associated with women. This knowledge can help you to maximize capacity within your organization.
  • Recognize and overcome biases: Conscious and unconscious biases can hurt people and affect decision-making. These biases often come into play when assigning general workplace tasks, putting individuals up for promotions, and assigning critical projects. Understanding the biases that discriminate against women and how to address them will support women’s career journey in and beyond performance reviews.
  • Avoid common performance review mistakes: Traditionally, performance reviews have used different language to describe positive and negative attributes of women. For example, while a woman might be called abrasive, a man with similar qualities might be considered confident or assertive. Assess the language used in reviews and avoid terms that may carry a gender bias.

A corporate culture that creates a fear of feedback can hinder progress toward inclusion. Conversely, an open and honest performance management policy with gender-neutral language can lead to an increased desire for feedback as a gateway to success. An organization with a positive culture surrounding performance evaluation can empower individuals to give their best.

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Mistake 2: Absence of coaching for managers and department leads

Respecting and fostering diversity in the workplace means understanding how different individuals bring unique talents and perspectives to an organization. Acknowledging and celebrating this diversity during the performance review stage allows individuals to express their skills and personalities within your organization. With this in mind, coach managers to foster this environment enable individuals to thrive in a culture of acceptance and empowerment.

How to correct it:

  • Coach to create a new corporate culture: Gender-inclusive management involves adapting how you engage with others. Focus on active listening, reading body language, and building trust during a performance review. Use coaching to develop a culture of empathy.
  • Coach awareness of microaggressions in performance reviews: Dr. Derald Wing Su describes microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” Coaching your managerial team through awareness of microaggressions is critical to overcoming how detrimental they are in the workplace.
  • Coach managers to empower women heading into a performance review: Coaching can increase a manager’s success in creating an inclusive workplace culture and encouraging authentic and non-judgmental interaction. A single-minded approach to performance management often discriminates against employees who succeed using non-traditional skills like empathy, self-awareness, intellectual curiosity and kindness.

Research from Stanford links a lack of self-confidence to negotiating pay increases at work. Highlighting the fact that women ask for raises less than men because of a lack of confidence, even though their skill level is the same. To help narrow the pay gap, managers must be allies instead of obstacles. Coaching managers to act as a leader and a coach will help foster skills and confidence in all their employees.

Understanding the diversity within your organization is vital to its success. Individuals can achieve peak performance in different ways. The greater the understanding a manager has of their team, the more they can be equipped to provide actionable feedback. You can remove gender bias from performance reviews by fostering a corporate culture that promotes empathy and understanding of diverse skills and strengths. This type of culture shift can improve performance and evaluation, uncover hidden potential and discover new ways to improve performance at work.

Mistake 3: Lack of support for women to grow as leaders

Organizations must implement strategies to ensure fewer roadblocks in the path of career growth for women, and clearly explain what these strategies are during a performance review. For example, research from the Harvard Business Review reveals that managers often avoid giving women feedback, even if the manager believes in the individual. A lack of feedback can be a considerable roadblock to improved performance. In addition, managers may encourage women to collaborate and foster teamwork instead of taking leadership initiatives, whereas men are often encouraged to increase their confidence in the workplace.

How to correct it:

  • Create a women’s leadership development program: Develop a program to empower women to leverage their unique skills, life experience and leadership styles. Engage women at every level of your organization to aid in a culture of mentorship and camaraderie.
  • Institute equal pay: Research shows that the pay gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) jobs remains a significant obstacle for women. A pay gap can magnify imposter syndrome in female employees and perpetuate inequality in the workplace. Initiate an equal pay audit of your organization and take steps to remedy any gender pay gaps during performance reviews.
  • Offer coaching for women: Coaching can aid in creating a flourishing ecosystem where people thrive, express their uniqueness, and overcome biases. Research published in 2017 by Dr. Sally Bonneywell, an expert in coaching and psychology, highlights how coaching can support women leaders, especially acting on these three pillars:
    • Coaching brings self-confidence: The study revealed that coaching can increase women’s ability to understand themselves and receive insight into how they impact others. This revelation boosted self-confidence and decreased self-limiting thoughts.
    • Coaching facilitates change in relationships: Women in the study who received coaching were directly impacted by how leaders thought about their leadership behaviors. They developed higher awareness of their leadership style. Women became more thoughtful moving forward in their approach to tasks and goals. Women in the study also spoke about how coaching helped improve conflict management and navigating power dynamics.
    • Coaching collectively impacts women: The study indicated that coaching positively impacted the women involved. They gained a sense of shared feelings that reduced loneliness and unified their forces. Coaching was found to increase the connection and create a powerful resource. Coaching and reflection connected the women and created opportunities to give back and support other women.

Applying coaching throughout an organization can lead to empowering women in the workplace. Coaching can unlock inner talents and resources, leading to a potential increase in motivation and engagement in pursuing career growth. Supporting women through coaching allows managers to increase their understanding and perspective on women in the workplace, educating managers on delivering accurate and timely feedback and conducting inclusive performance reviews to avoid gender bias pitfalls.

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Leadership development strategies for women

While women currently make up just under half (46.6%) of the U.S. workforce, biases make it difficult to enter traditionally male-dominated STEM fields, where women make up only 27%. In addition, women struggle to overcome stereotypes associated with gender regarding their roles in society. These stereotypes often lead to unconscious biases that hinder women from breaking into or succeeding in male-dominated fields. This can often result in blocked opportunities to take proactive steps to address obstacles and problems. While it’s crucial to address these issues systematically, women looking to grow their careers can use these six tools to help set themselves up for success.

  1. Develop your leadership style: Developing a personal leadership style and how to communicate it will present you as a more appealing candidate for leadership opportunities. In addition, understanding how to communicate your leadership style can convey a great sense of self-efficacy, self-confidence and authenticity.
  2. Understand your unique influencing style: To adapt and thrive in a male environment,’ it can be crucial to understand your influencing style and how to use it effectively. In addition, having a firm grasp of your influencing style will help you navigate the social complexities of an organization’s corporate culture.
  3. Enhance communication and pitching skills: Advocating for yourself and your ideas in a corporate setting is a skill that can be enhanced with practice. Learning the ins and out of how to do it tactfully is essential. Take time to practice these skills, then put them into practice using the foot-in-the-door technique (using a small ask to pave the way for a larger one.)
  4. Build a woman’s network: Research has shown that historically, men have excluded women when it comes to networking. Having a support network can aid in brainstorming about career progression, overcoming obstacles and feeling like you’re not struggling alone.
  5. Develop a relationship with a mentor: In male-dominated fields, finding a female mentor can be challenging. Women aren’t always represented at every level of every company. Research indicates that mentorship can greatly assist professional advancement. Initiate a mentorship program to partner with other organizations to spread a wider net, seek out a coach or find a non-profit that offers female mentoring.
  6. Regulate work-life balance: The National Library of Medicine indicates that individuals perform better when considering their work-life balance. For a higher impact in your organization, set boundaries for your work-life balance and practice self-care. This can include taking time for family, physical health, sound sleep routines and healthy eating habits.

A recent women’s survey by CCL research highlights that women often underestimate their ability to lead. The study reveals that new leadership experience adds to self-confidence and allows women to realize they are qualified and equipped to step into leadership positions. Adding these tools for success can increase self-confidence and help individuals feel equipped to navigate career advancement and tackle gender barriers head-on.


Career success for women

Women in professional settings should be aware of the existing barriers and biases and equip themselves with tools to help them overcome them. However, the responsibility of tackling performance management through an approach that addresses gender biases and supports women across the workplace must lie with leadership. Assessing how your organization conducts performance management will reveal any biases within your administration and policies. Organizations must address their shortfalls in performance reviews to promote gender equity in leadership. Use coaching for leadership, managers and employees to help navigate this culture change, and most importantly, use the tools at your disposal to support the women working within your organization.

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