Three Latina Uber engineers filed a lawsuit against the ride-hailing app in San Francisco in October, claiming that women and people of color are “systematically undervalued” as part of the company’s performance review system. The lawsuit alleged that lower performance reviews have a domino affect on how the minority groups are treated at the company, which leads to fewer advancement opportunities, less benefits, unequal pay and stock compensation.
Uber has been under fire before for its performance review system, which uses a “stack ranking” method that turns colleagues into competitors and welcomes unconscious gender biases. In June, an independent investigation led by former attorney general Eric Holder concluded that Uber needed to revamp its process to “eliminate bias” and “misuse” in an effort to “restore employee trust in the performance evaluation system.”
The fact is, on top of being too infrequent and oft-rushed, annual performance reviews across all companies in all industries are too often littered with unconscious bias. Recent research published in the Harvard Business Review finds that women are 1.4 times more like to receive subjective critical feedback (and less constructive critical feedback), and women’s performances are more likely attributed to characteristics rather than skills and abilities.
But that’s nothing new — research on performance reviews’ gender bias is storied. In 2014, linguist Kieran Snyder collected 248 performance reviews from women and men across 28 companies in the tech industry, and she found that women were significantly more likely to receive critical feedback (87.9 percent, compared to 58.9 percent for men) and more likely to receive feedback based on their personality traits. While women were perceived as abrasive, bossy, aggressive, strident, emotional and irrational, men were considered confident and assertive.
Performance reviews read like this for men: “There were a few cases where it would have been extremely helpful if you had gone deeper into the details to help move an area forward.”
And they read like this for women: “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”
It’s a subtle but significant difference, and one that demonstrates how our gendered language consistently tells men how to win and women how not to fail. It also confines women to a double bind, through which they’re deemed too nice and thus incompetent or otherwise too bossy or any of the other aforementioned adjectives.
In fact, performance reviews offer little explanation as to how women could improve if they indeed need to do so.
In 2016, research from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research’s found that, across three high-tech companies and one professional services firm, feedback to men was full of granular detail and actionable advice and feedback to women was uselessly vague. The feedback also recognized men’s independence, while it tended to tout women’s team work and collaboration skills; this encourages men and women to follow different paths and positions male employees as more-likely leaders.
The researchers wrote in the Harvard Business Review that they have come to see performance evaluations as both a symptom of and a cause for women’s underrepresentation in the upper tiers of the business world. It’s a symptom because the evasive evaluations of women’s work may reflect managers’ unconsciously biased sense that women are are not leaders with measurable accomplishments. And it’s a cause because the lack of valuable feedback makes improvement a near impossible feat for women — both because it’s unclear as to where they need to improve and because improvement is difficult to measure without specifics to, well, measure.
To make matters worse, researchers posit that women with male bosses may also be at an added disadvantage.
“Necessary critical feedback can be difficult for a manager to offer to anybody, but... it can be especially uncomfortable when it is given across a dimension of difference, such as gender, race, or age,” they wrote. “When giving critical feedback to women, male managers may be especially worried about how the feedback will be received.”
The #MeToo campaign to bring the extensity of sexual harassment to the forefront of the media picked up traction after one woman spoke out, then two, then three, then unprecedented numbers… We anticipate (and hope) that Uber engineers Ingrid Avendano, Roxana del Toro Lopez and Ana Medina’s lawsuit will resonate in the same way.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.