Performance feedback is often used as a tool to measure competency and is, therefore, a gauge for employee success, with good feedback often rewarded with better pay or promotions. Yet, in the case of women in the workplace, it can also be the cause of a gender pay gap.
Join Sherry Bevan as she explores this issue with the CEO and Co-founder of Upful.ai, Shirin Nikaein. Shirin and Sherry discuss performance feedback and how it can negatively impact the gender pay gap. They also talk about ways to resolve this issue. A thought-provoking discussion that leaders need to tune in to.
How Performance Feedback At Work Influences Your Gender Pay Gap With Shirin Nikaein
I’m absolutely delighted to be talking to Shirin Nikaein. She is the Cofounder and CEO of Upful, an HR Software as a Service startup. She’s got many years of experience leading engineering analytics and product management in many tech companies, from startups to large enterprises. She’s the former lead engineer for the Beats by Dre headphones and her previous artificial intelligence products have been used by clients including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, UPS and Tinder. She’s graduated with a Master’s in Electrical Engineering. We’re going to be sharing some ideas and experiences on how performance feedback affects the gender pay gap. I hope you get something valuable from this to help you. Welcome, Shirin. Thank you so much for joining me.
Thanks for having me, Sherry.
This is such a fascinating topic and I know when we first got talking about this, we could have just talked for hours. I thought I’d start by asking you to explain to me, how do women sell themselves short in their own self-assessment? Lots of us have heard about imposter syndrome. What do we do to ourselves? How do we sabotage ourselves?
In how we do self-ratings, even in the language and how we explain what we’ve done, our accomplishments, not just in self-assessments when it comes time for a formal review. It also shows up in how we write our resumes, where we’re typically giving more credit to our team. We explain our accomplishments as like we contributed to a team effort or we didn’t necessarily need it. We were more afraid of taking credit for something that we led because there is somewhat of a backlash if we do try to take credit for it. I understand why some women are afraid to do that because we might get labeled as having a big ego or being a little bit arrogant. There’s a double standard that we’re dealing with.
On top of that, we also have the category of women who are suffering from imposter syndrome. This group of people doesn’t even see themselves as having had as great of an impact as they did. They don’t realize that they have led or contributed in a significant way that led to some kind of big accomplishment. It’ll show up in the language and language is probably softened. Even the numerical ratings are also lower than that of white men. That’s how we sell ourselves short.
We’ve both mentioned the imposter syndrome there but just in case there’s anybody reading, who hasn’t heard of that before, it’s a new term for them. Would you mind just giving us a brief explanation of what we’re talking about?
Imposter syndrome is an internal belief that we’re not good enough. We don’t fit in. If you have a different definition that you would like to add to, please do. It’s like we don’t see ourselves as the typical CEO or leader. We don’t see enough of that in either media or in the world and we’re not exposed to it. In our heads, we don’t think we fit in. When we get to that level, we still don’t think we fit in. The problem is, oftentimes, we are just as capable, intelligent and able to perform but in our heads, we don’t believe it yet. We think that we’re being fake. We feel like we are faking our way and most of us are not. We’re just as capable as the next person.
Imposter syndrome is the internal belief that we’re not good enough or we don’t fit in.
Sometimes what I hear women say is that it’s a lucky fluke that they got to where they are or they worry, they’re going to “get found out.”
They attribute it to luck rather than their own accomplishments and experience.
We’ve talked about how women tend to sell themselves short in their own self-assessment. How does this influence the feedback that they then get from their own managers on their performance?
In a lot of companies, what they do is because it’s difficult for managers to remember everything that every one of their direct reports has done throughout the year. This is for companies that maybe only do it once or twice a year. That’s part of why a lot of companies have moved to do it more frequently because you don’t forget all of these things that happen throughout the year. When a manager has to remember, maybe they have ten direct reports and they have to remember all of the big things that everybody did? They can’t remember that on their own.
What they do is depend on reading everybody’s self-assessments and evaluations. The manager will look at these self-assessments. They’re going to be impacted by the language in it, by the ratings in it and the content of it. Whatever the woman wrote about her accomplishments and growth throughout that year, this manager is going to make an assessment based on reading that. If that self-assessment is already lower in terms of the ratings and the way that the accomplishments are described, the credit that the woman took for her contributions, the manager is negatively going to be anchored by those lower self-assessments.
There has been a study done, I believe. I don’t know if it’s been released to the public but there was a public presentation on it back in 2019. It’s a study done by the Harvard Kennedy School for Women and Public Policy Program and the University of Exeter. The study was done by Iris Bohnet, Oliver Hauser, and Ariella Kristal. The paper is called Supply- and Demand- Side Effects in Performance Appraisals: The Role of Gender and Race. They looked at how people like white men versus women did their self-assessments and what kind of numerical scores they got.
They looked at how those self-assessments anchored manager assessments. You can see that there’s a clear anchoring effect. However, the manager assessments do bring it closer together. The difference between the self-assessments was big and the manager assessment did minimize that gap a little bit but it was still very clearly anchored by it. That’s where we’re getting these results from this study.
Also, that influences the managers and how they view that individual woman or man. It’s also going to affect how they view whether or not that person is ready to get promoted as well, which I think you’re creating this spiral effect almost. If you sell yourself short in your self-assessment, therefore, your manager sells you short as well but he or she is influenced by what you’ve written. It keeps ongoing.
I have an example of two sentences that we could dissect and talk about how great the difference is in these two sentences. This first one is about a man, let’s say the name is Tom. The sentence says, “Tom seems hesitant in making decisions. Yet, he is able to work out multiple alternative solutions and determine the most suitable one.” That’s one. The second sentence is for a female, “Amanda seems paralyzed and confused when facing tight deadlines to make decisions.”
Imagine that these are the exact two same scenarios. These are how differently it was described based on gender. The problem with this is when you say that “Amanda is paralyzed and confused,” first of all, how do you know what’s going on in her head? How do you know if she was confused? Using the word confused makes it sound like she’s incompetent. The fact that the way that they said it, “She’s paralyzed and confused when making decisions,” that’s it. They left it like that. It makes you question whether she has potential for growth but then when you look at the sentence for the man, Tom was just hesitant. How do you know what was going on in his head? There’s no outward observation that you can make to see what’s going on in someone’s head.
They called it hesitant, which doesn’t indicate any type of incompetency as confusion does. They did say, “He came up with multiple solutions and then picked one.” They did. In the end, he came to a decision. That’s good. It seems like he has more potential and doesn’t need additional training for this but for the woman. It sounds like, “Something’s wrong with her. She needs more training and she can’t even think.” These very subtle differences in language in the evaluation have a huge impact on whether somebody gets promoted or when they will get the next salary increase. It also affects what projects they get assigned to. The woman might not get assigned to the most strategic or visible project but the man will because the way that the languages presented shows that they still have potential and they’re still competent.
That’s great knowing those two examples and you can see how the language has a big impact on not just what that manager writes but future managers and what they might interpret or perceive from that feedback.
Just like that, you’re saying that Directors and VPs might read these manager assessments and make decisions without ever knowing that employee. That’s why the language is incredibly important because there is so much meaning behind it.
One of the things we talked about previously was likability and how that impacts performance reviews for women versus men?
When women break stereotypical norms, they are punished for it.
There were two studies that I wanted to mention with respect to ability. One of them is the Heidi and Howard Study. Heidi Roizen is an actual VC and basically, there was this experiment conducted at the Columbia Business School with the business school students. The students get to see two case studies. They’re the exact same case study, but one of them has the name Heidi and one of them has the name Howard.
Otherwise, everything else is exactly the same, just the name.
Just the name and that indicates gender. This case study was about a successful venture capitalist. They asked these study participants to rate the competency and the likeability of this VC. Heidi and Howard were rated highly on competency but Heidi was rated very low on likability. The study participants said that, “Heidi is power-hungry. She is self-promoting and not humble. They would not hire her and would not want to work with her.” It’s the complete opposite of Howard. This is the exact same person on paper. The only difference is gender. You can see that there’s a clear likeability penalty when a woman is exhibiting stereotypically masculine traits in a stereotypically masculine role. That is when they break the stereotypical norms. They are punished for it.
It’s almost as though it’s okay for a man to be ambitious, self-starter and perhaps aggressive in his approach maybe but as soon as a woman displays those same characteristics, it’s wrong. It’s a bad thing for a woman to be displaying those same characteristics because we perceive and expect women to behave in a softer, more feminine way.
It’s about the expectation and whether we break it or not. There are other studies that talk about how women who are in stereotypically more feminine roles, like marketing, don’t necessarily break the stereotypes. There isn’t as much of this double or punishment because they’re in a stereotypically female role.
It’s interesting because what we talked about in the last episode was how there’s a hierarchy in technology and that often women will end up in roles that are seen as less technical, less demanding and therefore get valued or paid less. For example, product management or training are seen as better suited to a typical female skillset and that perhaps a network architect or lead engineer is better suited to a male, the stereotypical tendency. That’s interesting that you’ve raised that as well.
There’s the double standard for if you’re a female and you’re in a more masculine role or position but even if you don’t behave in a masculine way and you’re in that role, you’re just not going to get anywhere. You’re not going to grow as fast as the others. Either you might have an easier time in that role because you’re not being punished but you’re also not going to grow. There’s this double bind.
We’ve already talked a bit about this but it’s going to affect how quickly different groups of employees get promoted, get salary increases or the size of the bonus, even that they get as well.
How it affects how people grow? It affects your earnings, salary increases, what we’ve talked about before, whether you get promoted or not and how quickly you got promoted. There’s a term for this. It’s called promotion velocity. Promotion velocity is the measurement of how quickly people grow in an organization, how quickly they get promoted. What does that time for the promotion? Companies need to be tracking this, measuring this, slice and dice it by different demographics in their company or organization.
They need to look at based on gender, race, ethnicity, even based on other factors that we haven’t uncovered yet. Even do it by department, it would be interesting to look at that. Just to see certain groups of people getting promoted at a quicker rate or a slower rate than others. Is there some reason for that? It might uncover some issues with bias and discrimination. Companies need to start tracking it. It’s still somewhat of a new term. It hasn’t been tracked historically. When companies care about diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, this needs to be one of the things that they measure. There are some simulations done. There’s one that was done at Rice University that looked at two identical people that had a 5% difference in performance ratings. What they found was that a tiny 5% difference equated to creating a two-level gap over the course of seven years.
When we talk about the gap, it’s very much talking about promotion velocity. It’s also pointing out the fact that so many companies are focused on, “Let’s hire more women into these managerial or leadership roles. Let’s hire them externally.” The problem isn’t just that we’re not giving them the same opportunities in terms of hiring, recruiting and acquisition. It’s about growth within the company as well because they’re just not being promoted at the same rate. It truly is an issue with how we’re evaluating them, not necessarily whether they’re capable, competent or whether they need more development and training. Those are all things that are important too. Even when two people are totally equal, there is a gap and that needs to be solved.
This simulation at Rice, as I mentioned, was done for two identical people. The difference wasn’t even based on race or gender. If you can imagine that if race or gender was factored in, that gap would be even greater. When we look at diverse representation, when you look at different levels within a company from entry-level up to CEO, the diversity decreases as you move up the company ladder. This has a lot to do with promotion velocity or different differential promotion velocities.
It’s quite incredible how over time, naturally, that gap is going to be exaggerated and to be felt even more as people move up through an organization.
There’s one more study I can mention here because it goes back to likability, breaking the stereotypical norms and that punishment for it. This other study was done by a New York University psychologist. I believe her name is Madeline Heilman. The participants in this study were basically given two identical scenarios and the difference is gender. They were asked to evaluate the performance of either the male or female employee who did or didn’t stay late to help colleagues prepare for an important meeting. In the case that both the man and the woman said, “Yes, I will stay late and help you prepare for this meeting,” the man was rated 14% higher than the woman.
Diversity decreases as you move up the company ladder, and this has a lot to do with different promotion velocities.
That’s a huge amount.
This is not even the 5%. This is 14%. When both of them said yes, the man was rated at 14% higher. Now when both of them said, “No, I can’t stay late to help you prepare for a meeting,” the woman was rated 12% lower than the man. Identical scenarios and the only difference is gender. What they found was that a woman has to say yes all the time and help her colleagues in order to be at the same level as a man who always says no.
Further, they found that the reasoning behind this is because when both of them said, “Yes, I’ll help,” the woman was expected to be helpful. That’s why she didn’t get extra points for it. When the man said yes, they didn’t expect him to be helpful. When he said yes, “He’s generous. This guy’s amazing.” When they both said no, it’s because the expectation was for the woman to always be helpful. When she said no, she was punished for it. She was considered to be selfish. When the man said no, people assumed that he was busy doing something more important. They didn’t make that assumption about the woman but for the man, “He must be busy with something more important. It’s okay.”
That’s a double whammy. It comes back to perhaps society’s expectations of what we perceive, how a woman should behave and that she should be helpful and all of that kind of thing, which is absolutely fascinating. We’ve talked a lot about the different factors and what’s involved. The differences between how men and women may be perceived in terms of feedback. What can HR leaders do to encourage a more positive feedback culture?
This is something that I learned from one of the companies that I interviewed. They can ask or do a survey to ask people how they prefer to hear feedback. They put together a survey and ask people, “When do you want to hear it? How do you want to hear it? Who do you want to hear it from?” This can help managers or colleagues prepare for how to have those conversations or if they do it in writing, how to go about it? Putting together a little survey like that to understand how people want to receive it if they want to ask for it ahead of time if they want it to happen in private or in the moment as it’s happening. All of these preferences would be great to know because then people can be more effective in delivering that feedback.
Also, HR should make sure that there are different options for how to give feedback that people are comfortable doing that. Whether it’s in writing, in person or maybe in some cases, it should be anonymous. In other cases, maybe it shouldn’t be anonymous. Maybe it has to go through a third party that HR could put together in place some tools to facilitate this. Maybe even to facilitate it in real-time, any time throughout the year, not just once or twice a year, because we know that there are a lot of cognitive biases that can impact how feedback is given. Recency bias is a big one. As time passes, we forget all the details and we become less accurate in how we remember things. Our memory does not work like a videotape so we need to be aware of that bias when we’re giving each other feedback. The sooner you can give the feedback, the better. There are tools that will help facilitate that as well.
I know your product Upful will help to reduce bias in performance reviews and employee feedback. Tell me a little bit more about your product.
Upful is a coaching tool. It’s software that analyzes language in performance reviews or in employee feedback. It could also be applied to job candidate assessment notes. It analyzes the language. It looks for vague, subjective, extreme, speculative and potentially biased words or phrases. In real-time, whoever is writing this, coaches them to be more meaningful, objective and inclusive in their language choice. If somebody was giving even positive feedback, like if you said, “Sherry did a good job with X, Y, and Z,” the coach might then pop up a little message off to the side and say, “That’s great.” Can you let her know what was great about what she did? She might do it more in the future.”
It’s all non-accusatory so that people don’t have a defensive reaction to the coaching and it’s all private. Only the person writing it gets to see these coaching moments. It either reminds them of best practices, asks them to provide an example or it asks them questions to provoke deeper thinking. Another example of the coaching that we do is with this double bind or the double standards that women face. If you were to say that, “Sherry is always aggressive in meetings.” The coach might say, “I might flag something about the word always because that’s an extreme word. How often is it truly always? We might coach around that.”
For the word aggressive, we might say something like, “How is she being aggressive? Can you give an example? Could it also be considered assertive or confident?” Now, we’re planting seeds about alternative interpretations that the writer might then think about and reconsider. Basically, we’re trying to make the quality of the review, better and more accurate representation of someone’s performance and potential but also make it more meaningful so that the person receiving that feedback can actually learn and grow from it.
Lots of HR teams will give feedback to managers on how to conduct performance review meetings or how to write performance feedback. This is supplementing that by giving you that coaching tool on top of it that reinforces and reminds people about the bias that may be slipping into what they’re writing without them even realizing it.
We don’t because it’s not accusatory. We don’t call people out. We never say, “You’re being biased. You said something bad.” It’s always done in this subtle soft way so that nobody reacts very defensively to it. We even try to inject some humor into the way that we do the coaching because that’s our take on it, our little spin on how to make it a little bit more friendly and for people to learn from. We’re using Behavioral Science methodologies that are proven. There are tons of studies that show this type of methodology can help change how people think and behave and we’re utilizing those methodologies in our product.
That’s absolutely fantastic. Thank you so much for joining me, Shirin. I’ve enjoyed talking to you about how performance feedback is affecting the gender pay gap. I hope that you enjoyed reading this episode. Thank you so much for joining me. If this episode sparked a thought in your mind, I’d love for you to connect with a chat with me so that you can ask any questions you have about the work that I do with technology companies on attracting, developing, retaining your female talent so you can close the gender pay gap. Thank you for reading and we’ll be back in the next episode.
- Staying late to help colleagues prepare for a meeting https://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/08/opinion/sunday/sheryl-sandberg-and-adam-grant-on-women-doing-office-housework.html?_r=2
- And here: https://www.fastcompany.com/3050043/how-to-end-the-office-housework-gender-bias
- The Likeability Penalty – Heidi vs Howard
- Imposter Syndrome in Self-Assessments that Anchor Manager Assessments
- Different words used to describe men in women in performance reviews
- How even the same words can have a different meaning based on gender
- Really good interactive website: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/interactives/strong-men-caring-women/
- More information about Upful: get.upful.ai
About Shirin Nikaein
Shirin Nikaein is the Co-Founder & CEO of Upful.ai, an HR / DEI Tech SaaS startup. Shirin has nearly 15 years of experience leading engineering, analytics, and product management in many tech companies, from startups to large enterprises. She’s the former Lead Engineer for the Beats by Dre headphones, and her previous Artificial Intelligence products have been used by clients including Google, Facebook, Microsoft, UPS and Tinder. She graduated with a BS and MS in Electrical Engineering from USC and an MBA from UCLA Anderson.