When talking about success at work, how likely are you to attribute your accomplishments to your skill?
As it turns out, the answer to that question often depends on your gender. Men’s professional wins are more likely to be attributed to skill, whereas women’s victories are more often attributed to luck.
The experience of devaluing (or conversely, overvaluing) work based on gender struck a chord with many.
Many women commented on how often they found themselves brushing off work accomplishments as if what they had achieved was “no big deal,” or “I was just lucky.”
When the realization hit home that the difference in perception of achievement is, in fact, gendered — and well researched for that matter — it caused a stir.
Gender and unfairness around success
A common theme running through those reactions was one of unfairness. Unfairness in who gets hired. And — once in the door — unfairness in who gets promoted.
Stephane Dehlinger, HR Director at Chivas Brothers, is smart to point out that an important part of fairness is knowing what policies, procedures, and performance management systems are already in place.
Without that level of transparency, it’s hard to decide whether to be outraged or inspired by a company’s efforts.
Dehlinger shares: “We realized people were not aware of what framework we were using to make decisions internally.
“There was a desire for transparency — and while there are some limits to how much information we can provide, we felt what did matter was providing the context for our decisions.”
Businesses would be wise to offer up transparency where possible to help limit this sense of unfairness because unfairness has an insidious impact — it can lead to burnout.
Dr Jacqueline Kerr, a behavioral scientist and burnout survivor, points out that the first stage of burnout on the widely-recognized 12-stage model of burnout created by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North is the need to prove oneself.
“That first stage is such an important one,” Kerr states. “Do you need to prove yourself because you’re from a group that is not rewarded for effort? It sets the expectation of working harder.”
Experienced Chief People Officer Ryan Cheyne concurs that he’s seen unfairness play out time and time again in his career. “The challenge with hiring and promoting people is that ultimately, there is a subjective point where somebody has to make a call.”
This subjectivity issue can have dire inclusion impacts on hiring and promotional decisions. “You have people who are very good at presenting themselves,” says Cheyne.
“It’s presentation over substance.” Kerr agrees. “We see again and again that men are promoted on the basis of their potential – and potential isn’t something we can measure.”
Creating fairer workplaces
“How much engineering are you going to put into what is still essentially a human process of choice and selection?” asks Cheyne.
It’s an interesting challenge. As Cheyne points out, “Now in 2023, we’re still recruiting pretty much the same way as we were in 1993.”
Given that the interview process is about as indicative of future success as using star signs to hire someone, overhauling the interview process itself seems like a good place to start to help mitigate subjectivity.
“This can be as simple as adding in multiple interview stages so you get multiple perspectives and feedback. It’s about adding as many touchpoints as practically possible,” says Cheyne.
Kerr agrees. “It’s about changing the system. The current promotion process is biased and unfair.” She cites an idea from Iris Bohnet’s excellent book What Works: Gender Equality by Design: de-implementing self-appraisals.
“Self-appraisals will lead to women being more poorly appraised. Why? Because women under-praise themselves and men over-praise themselves.”
Encouraging people to be more proactive in noting their milestones and accomplishments at the moment can help mitigate this bias and lead to a more factual evaluation.
Rethink performance management
Adding in more objectivity to the performance management process can help — and data can help play a role in this. “We are looking at far more data than we used to have for performance management and HR,” says Dehlinger.
“This helped us to address salary bands to minimize the gender pay gap. It also helped us to address how we would like women represented at the top end of the organization.”
Anonymous applicant tracking systems are also gaining ground. This creates a “blind recruitment” atmosphere — at least up to a point, that is.
The most famous example of this is of course the blind orchestra study, which used a screen to hide the identity of the musician auditioning. This screen increased by 50% the probability that a woman advanced out of a preliminary round.
Cheyne reports that at his prior company, they had just implemented one such anonymous tracking system that removed information such as name, gender, age, etc. But he was quick to point out the limitations.
“As with any system, you need a volume of data to start building up the true picture of effectiveness.”
Changing performance criteria can also help equal the playing field for promotions.
McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2022 report highlighted that women often have a whole host of responsibilities at work that they are not compensated for, such as inclusion, morale, wellbeing, etc.
That lack of compensation signals a lack of value. Those important workplace contributions need to be included in performance management.
Why fairness at work matters
“We make an important distinction between equity and equality,” says Dehlinger.
“There was a perception internally that if someone at one level received a certain merit increase, everyone should get the same. But we recognize performance at an individual level, which means that people wanted to better understand how we were making those decisions.”
The distinction between fairness and equality is important to understand in the workplace. Broadly speaking, people are largely okay with inequality (given that we all have the same starting point, which we know we rarely do), but it’s a lack of fairness that really riles us up.
Therefore, sharing information about how decisions are made — and noting the reasons why some are promoted or hired versus others — can help people decide for themselves if a decision was fair or not.
When asked what fair representation at work looked like, Dehlinger had this to say: “Fairness itself is rather subjective, but fair representation to me would be to understand what society looks like, and be able to mirror what society looks like today within our organization.
“Fairness would be a world where we can forget the diverse criteria that we talk so much about because they are no longer raised in conversations. The talent is simply the talent. If we can get to that point, then we’ll have been successful.”
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