13 practical ways to address gender bias in your people processes
By Sharon Peake, Shape Talent Founder & CEO
Gender bias can be deeply embedded in people processes and organisational culture, without any intended discrimination. In a previous article I shared 9 tips to address gender bias in the recruitment process. This article sheds a light on other aspects of your people practices that could benefit from a gender equity lens.
Talent identification & performance management
Gender inequality can manifest in talent identification and performance management policies in several ways. The criteria used to assess employee potential or performance may inadvertently favour certain traits or behaviours traditionally associated with men. For example, if leadership qualities are primarily associated with assertiveness and dominance, it may disadvantage women who tend to exhibit more collaborative and inclusive leadership styles. And where decision-making panels or performance evaluation committees are not gender balanced, it can lead to a lack of diverse perspectives and potentially reinforce existing biases.
Tips to remove bias from talent identification and performance management
- Review performance and talent identification outcomes. Is one gender disproportionately receiving more high potential and performance ratings? If so, that’s a good sign that there is likely bias in your practices.
- Critically review your definition of ‘potential’. Most potential models include some variation of ‘ambition’ or ‘drive’ in their models. Yet these can manifest differently for women. Ensure women aren’t inadvertently being penalised by a model that is unintentionally gender biased.
- Identify what is really rewarded in performance. What is the language used in performance reviews? Studies have found that women tend to receive more vague, more personal and less helpful performance feedback than men1. Tools such as Gender Decoder and Textio can be used to test sample performance reviews for indicators of gender bias.
While in most parts of the world, women enter the workforce in roughly equal number to men, at every successive level of the leadership pipeline women’s representation diminishes.
Every career route has certain skills and experiences that are important for promotion. Yet evidence shows that women often miss out on the critical experiences2 that are often the building blocks of career progression.
Tips to ensure gender equitable promotions
- Ensure women are getting the critical experiences they need. Robust practices in allocating and auditing the way high profile projects or other critical experiences are allocated will help this. As well as a retrospective review on outcomes – did they result in more women being promoted?
- Encourage women to apply. Studies have shown that women are less likely to apply for roles where they perceive a high risk of failure, because of the subtle social penalty that accompany this.3 Gentle nudges to encourage women to put themselves forward for a promotion opportunity can greatly increase the promotion pipeline.
Our own research has found that women aren’t receiving adequate career support from their line leader, or from senior leaders. In a UK study, the Centre for Talent Innovation found that men are 25% more likely than women to have a sponsor, and at senior levels they were 50% more likely to benefit from sponsorship. Sponsorship is often critical for advancement at the most senior levels in an organisation.
Positive action can be critical here. Not to be confused with positive discrimination (for example, recruitment of a person based on a specific characteristic such as sex), positive action is an important way for organisations to level the playing field by giving under-represented groups an equal opportunity, through targeted actions or programmes.
Tips to ensure gender equitable development
- Sponsor women. Every senior leader – regardless of their gender – should sponsor at least one woman in the business and help raise her visibility and profile and extend her network. Pay particular attention to women at the intersection of other under-represented groups, such as ethnicity, disability and sexual orientation.
- Run women’s acceleration programmes. Identify top women talent and build programmes to accelerate their learning, development, networks, confidence and self-efficacy. This means that when opportunities arise you will have a more robust pool of women candidates who are ready for promotion. With more senior women in decision-making, the more likely a woman’s perspective will be represented in decision-making, driving longer-term gender equity.
Despite this being unlawful in many parts of the world, women can still find themselves paid less than men for similar roles and levels of performance. The effects are further exacerbated at intersections of gender and sexual orientation, disability and race. For example, women of colour earn less than white women in many parts of the western world. Bisexual women earn 5% less than their similarly qualified heterosexual peers6, and trans women experience a sharp drop of 20% in annual earnings compared with their earnings as a man7.
Pay differentials can sometimes be the unintended consequence of unhelpful practices such as anchoring new starter pay in previous earnings, which only serve to perpetuate gender pay gaps. It can also result from women being less likely than men to negotiate their remuneration.
Tips to ensure gender equitable reward
- Audit salaries and total compensation for gender bias. In many countries the law requires that there is no gender pay gap for the same role, so check that you are compliant. Additionally, there should be no gender gap for work of equal value.If you have a job evaluation methodology in place, use this to help identify jobs of equal value, some of which may not always be obvious.
- Don’t ask for previous salary when hiring. If you’re not already, ditch this mandatory field from application processes and interview practices. Instead, set salaries based on the benchmark for that job, not whether the candidate was previously underpaid.
- Introduce transparency in salary practices. Salary transparency is a continuum from transparency of the process around salary reviews, to transparency of job bands, through to transparency of job types, through to (rarely) transparency of individual pay. Transparency requires a requisite level of process and managerial maturity to manage this well but think about where your organisation is now and what it would take to move further along the transparency continuum.
Retention, engagement, separation and exit
How engaged are the women in your business? It’s not uncommon to identify in our diagnostic work with clients that women are less engaged and more likely to leave the organisation. Direct replacement costs can reach as high as 50% of an employee’s annual salary, with total costs associated with turnover ranging from 90% to 200% of annual salary. Having disengaged talent is costly and avoidable.
Tips to retain and engage all genders
- Review your engagement rates. How about employee engagement? How does this differ across genders? And where is it most problematic – is it at a particular level or function or team? Or in a particular geography or location? If your engagement survey has a question on leaving intention, how do the scores vary by gender? Know your data and act on it.
- Review the distribution of bonuses and other incentives. Are the retention incentives you use, such as off-cycle salary adjustments or bonuses, or long-term incentive plans, distributed proportionately across genders? And if not, explore the underlying reasons for this.
- Review exit data and identify root causes. How does your labour turnover data compare by gender? Are women disproportionately more likely than men to leave? And how does this differ by voluntary versus involuntary termination rates? And what does your exit interview data tell you about the underlying reasons for this?As with all data, always explore this along intersectional lines where you can, identifying where the comparative impact for women of under-represented ethnicities, for example.
Gender inequality is typically reinforced by outdated policies and systems that no longer serve an organisation. There are simple, subtle and often quick changes that can be made to HR policies and practices to positively influence gender equality in the workforce.
If you’d like to discuss how Shape Talent can support you on this journey, do get in touch. Our Debias Audit is the ideal way to begin to understand how your organisation can begin with dismantling barriers and disrupting gender biases. The Debias Audit takes a detailed look at people processes, policies and systems through the lens of gender inclusivity. We provide a detailed report with specific recommendations to guide your organisation in addressing bias.
Sharon Peake is the founder and CEO of Shape Talent Ltd, the diversity, equity and inclusion experts for complex multinational organisations who are serious about gender equality – and what it can achieve for their business.
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