May the best (wo)man win

Should the people who run the fastest at work be the ones to get promoted first? Or should it be those with the most potential? How can organisations persuade talented women to stick around, instead of watching one after the other walk out the door? Isabella Grabner believes that the way performance is measured makes a huge difference on the work floor. “And that’s the hopeful part, since this is something firms can fix themselves.”

‘Performance measurement’ is a well-known term in organisations. Less well known is the fact that how you measure performance makes a big difference, not only to the outcome of the evaluation, but also to a woman’s chances of getting a promotion – or even her willingness to strive for one. Isabella Grabner has conducted groundbreaking research in this field. Now she is starting a new project, supported by a €200,000 grant from the Dutch Foundation for Auditing Research. The foundation is also giving Grabner access to the personnel database of the nine largest Dutch accounting firms. “Normally it’s almost impossible to get that”, she says. This will enable her and her team to analyse the career paths of all employees over a long period of time. “So we’re about to see if it’s true that talented people leave, and if so, were they passed over for a promotion in the past?”

Peter Principle

In previous research Grabner has shown that you can avoid promoting people to their level of incompetence (the ‘Peter Principle’) if you not only rely on current job performance, but also take potential into account. Further, people’s intuition as to whether someone deserves a promotion leads to better decisions than formal, paper-based evaluations. “So trying to formalise things is not necessarily better if you want to avoid the Peter Principle.”

If the wrong people sometimes get promoted, it stands to reason that the good ones are sometimes passed over. “And I have a strong feeling that women are more likely to be passed over for promotion than men. Women dropping out of the workforce, which is one of the biggest problems for accounting firms, is what we call the ‘leaking pipeline’. And it’s not only happening at firms, but at other places too, like universities.” She gives the example of her own faculty, the School of Business and Economics. At PhD level, the ratio of women to men is 50:50. At the next rung on the ladder, assistant professor, it’s 20:80. “From a university perspective, we’re wasting our talent. If we want to hire the best people, half our assistant professors should be women.”

Isabella Grabner2
Femke Kools (text) and Arjen Schmitz (photography)

Implicit bias

The main bottleneck for women in academia, Grabner believes, is the way performance is measured on the tenure track. But the problem is not confined to academia. “The evaluation systems used in promotion decisions were designed many years ago, when women didn’t make up half of the workforce. They were designed by men to distinguish between good and bad … men. They need to be adapted to keep pace with reality.” What’s more, women are constantly being evaluated with male criteria. Research shows that this is not always intentional. In one study, students were asked to evaluate an email response from a teacher. When they thought the teacher was male, they rated the answer as ‘excellent and in time’. When they thought the teacher was female, they found it ‘good but too late’. “So there’s an implicit bias in society. But if we know that, we can incorporate it into our performance measurement systems. And not base promotion decisions in academia on ‘objective’ teaching evaluations, because they’re biased!”

All-male PhD committee

When speaking about this topic, Grabner’s eyes tend to light up. She is determined to bring about evidence-based change in this area. Together with her students, she recently developed the rating methodology and conducted desk research for the global report on gender equality by Equileap, an NGO seeking to accelerate progress towards gender equality in the workplace. This is important because, as research shows, gender-diverse companies tend to produce higher financial returns and have lower risk. Equileap argues that equal pay and, more broadly, equal oppor­tunities at work are powerful levers to enhance global prosperity.

Grabner has also been asked to help advise the Executive Board on how to increase diversity and inclusion at Maastricht University. “We want to be a university that has room for everybody. And frankly, at the moment the key positions are dominated by white, grey-haired Dutch men.” To change this, she says, awareness is the first step. “Nowadays I’ll hear people say, ‘Did you see? The committee for that PhD defence was all male!’ And women have to be more aware of their own potential and lift each other up. Most of my PhD students are female and I make sure half of their defence committee is made up of women, even if I have to fly a professor over from America. Women have to be good role models.”

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