“This is happening everywhere, all the time.”
People don’t feel like they favor men at work. We think we treat all people equally, rewarding meritorious performance, not identity. But what if there were data proving otherwise? Would you admit gender bias?
Five US and international companies in three different industries—real estate, technology, and investment—asked themselves these difficult questions after they submitted a slew of data to an extensive algorithmic analysis by Palatine Analytics, a Boston, Massachusetts firm using artificial intelligence to understand work.
The results these brave companies received were awkward. All five institutions discovered that male employees were rewarded more than women who set and accomplished the same performance goals. The higher up the chain of command jobs went, the more this happened.
On average, in these companies, executive positions were heavily dominated by dudes, while entry-level positions showed less disparity and were filled by 45% women and 55% men. That few women occupied powerful positions is no wonder: The numbers show that along the work hierarchy women’s accomplishments were consistently deemed less impressive than those of men who accomplished the same goals. As a result, women were promoted less often and could not rise to the top as often as similarly skilled men.
The study was based on employee feedback, goals, accomplishments, performance reviews, and promotions. Employees gave feedback about bosses and colleagues. They also set performance goals and noted how and when these were achieved so researchers could determine whether performance reviews reflected outcomes or indicated biases. The results showed that although men and women were equally as likely to set and meet the same goals—whether selling property or boosting the value of an investment portfolio—male employees were getting 25% more positive evaluations compared to women in the same position doing the same things.
“This is happening everywhere, all the time,” Palatine Analytics founder Archil Cheishvilli told Quartz in a phone call. Notably, a 2016 Stanford University study on performance reviews came to similar conclusions, noting that men’s performance reviews consistently include clearer feedback on how to succeed while women at work get vague critiques that seem to be tied to identity rather than outcomes. “Gender bias is a reality and it can only be eradicated when we show where it occurs and become conscious of it, then take steps to change our systems,” Cheishvelli says.
Along with the results, his firm provided companies that participated in the study with an action plan emphasizing “radical transparency.” After delving deeper into the data, the research team discovered that anonymity tended to make room for bias in feedback. But when people had their names attached to critiques and couldn’t hide, they were more inclined to be fair regardless of gender.
Transparency could help eradicate bias of all kinds, including but not limited to gender, or so Cheishvelli believes. He explains: “If no one knows what’s going on, people will do the wrong thing. But when they are conscious, there’s self-awareness, and [when] they’re held responsible for what they do, through transparency, people do the right thing.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, we don’t all share the same biases. Palatine’s study found that women provided almost identical performance review scores to men and women. They assessed accomplishments equally and weren’t inclined to punish men for their identity.
However, 70% of men provided higher evaluations to men than to women who did the same jobs and accomplished the same goals. In more senior positions, approximately 75% of men provided higher reviews to men than to women. These results suggest that however men feel about treating everyone equally at work, gender bias is nonetheless driving reality.