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Individual performance evaluations are a traditional practice that is done in many organisations. It is supposed to guarantee equal treatment between individuals by most often establishing and assessing employees based on a series of objectives. How can performance evaluations help with professional equality?

In a book chapter co-authored by Claire Dambrin from ESCP Business School, Pierre Lescoat, professor at NEOMA, takes the example of large investment banks and points out the difficulty in ensuring equal treatment in a male environment.

The gender gap at the workplace and work-life balance are often presented as the main causes of gender inequality in the professional world. However, the management tools used in companies, including performance evaluation systems, need to be taken into account when analysing these iniquities.

Are performance evaluation systems objective?

Performance evaluation systems often strive to measure individual performance by comparing quantitative results with previously established norms. The individual’s performance is thus measured against the achievement of quantitative financial (profit, return, etc.) and non-financial (meeting deadlines, customer satisfaction, etc.) objectives. Since it is based on data and on identical rules (objectives) for everyone – men and women – the system is supposed to limit the subjectivity of managers and be fair and merit-driven.

But, while there are good intentions behind it, the system’s construction, meaning the choice of the criteria that will be analysed, sometimes ends up institutionalising the norms that are  questionable from the point of view of equal treatment, particularly between men and women.

Case study in investment banks: gender in and around evaluation systems

Certain evaluation systems that appear neutral are in fact gender biased and may potentially limit the access of women to positions of power.

Opacity and gender

In the conducted study, the evaluation system for traders includes a part made up of collective objectives, specifically financial ones. That makes it impossible to quantitatively identify individual contribution to company profit, and thus impedes employees from being able to compare their individual performance against the norms. It becomes difficult in this situation to defend oneself against a paternalistic manager who confines a female employee’s evaluation to an assessment of her personality. And this further entrenches classic stereotypes such as types of behaviour like combativity, which is deemed a positive for men, but not for women.

Hostile sexism

The most high-paying professions in the financial sector still do most of their recruiting in engineering schools, where only 20% of the graduates are women (2016). Hostile sexism that existed in school is reproduced on the trading floor.

According to surveys in the United Kingdom, there are numerous harassment and discrimination suits, and they are won by the plaintiffs! And with that, there is a perverse effect: on the trading floor, a woman is not only considered a sexual object but also a legal risk.

Total availability

The concept of total availability, meaning an employee who can be contacted at any time, is also a pervasive practice in banking, which results in bonuses and career advancement. Consequently, how can a women commit to pregnancy and family life, which can be seen as a withdrawal from the competition found on the trading floor? This norm of total availability does not only hold back women in their professional advancement but men as well to some extent. Certain male managers cannot talk about their family life out of fear of being seen as not as committed to work by their peers.

In these examples we can see that there is still a long way to go towards equality. The researchers shining a spotlight on the gender-bias aspect of individual performance evaluations is a step forward towards professional equality.

Read more on the subject

1 « Dé-neutraliser l’évaluation de la performance. Les illusions de l’« objectivité » et de la « méritocratie » en salles de marché » Pierre Lescoat (NEOMA Business School) and Claire Dambrin (ESCP Business School)

in Quantifier l’égalité au travail : Outils politiques et enjeux scientifiques. Joint publication edited by Soline Blanchard and Sophie Pochic. Postface by Emmanuel Didier. Published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes, April 2021.