How To Design Performance Reviews That Don’t Fail Women. The event industry with over 80% female staff is well positioned to raise the bar in gender discrimination

28.02.2018 12:29

For starters, let’s stop evaluating “leadership style.”

 “You women find it more difficult toward your path to directorship. You are naturally consensus builders. We are looking for a specific profile.”

That’s what the director of another department once told me after blocking my promotion. I was shattered. I thought the promotion was in the bag; my boss had told me so. I had crushed my numbers. The clients loved me. My VP and team had signed off. But when the director argued against what he saw as my “profile”–and then pinned that to my gender–well, the opportunity vanished.

Until then, I admit that I’d quietly believed gender bias was basically a non-issue, at least where my own career was concerned. But losing out on that promotion led me to finally face facts, and dig into the research–which shows, for example, that both men and women believe men are more likely to possess the greater share of leadership skills. Yet when that same 2012 study analyzed over 7,000 leaders’ effectiveness scores, gender made no difference.

And of course it didn’t. But perception is everything. And according to the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, we’re still a long way off from curbing the biased perceptions that reap fewer rewards for women who perform just well as–if not better than–their male colleagues. Rethinking how we evaluate performance, though, is a great place to start.


Undeniably, we need to hire and reward employees who contribute to their companies’ cultures as their bottom lines. How you do things matters. But when style and “executive presence” become key criteria for advancement, it’s bad news for women.

It’s been called the “double bind”: when women leaders behave more femininely, they’re perceived as weak, insecure, and ineffective; if they act more masculine, they’re unlikable, abrasive, or too bossy. When my coaching clients get critical feedback about their leadership styles–whether in formal annual reviews or sporadically–I tell them to request evidence that their style has a negative effect on their job or the team. Most of the time, the evaluators realize that the employee’s style is precisely what makes them successful–whether or not they personally consider it too weak or too strong.

Similarly, when women are judged to be too forceful or “pushy” in the workplace, it’s always smart to ask, “Compared to whom?” Women are often penalized when they exhibit the same behaviors as their male colleagues. Rather than denying outright that the feedback is valid or claiming it’s sexist (which, of course, it might very well be), request a baseline of comparison. This can sometimes nudge the conversation past subjective assessments of “style” toward substantive outcomes.


Some companies have tried increasing meritocracy by asking leadership committees to judge employees’ performance. This takes the final say over rankings and promotion decisions out of managers’ hands. But there are risks to giving more power to people with little exposure to the employee’s work. As Harvard Business Review recently reported, research suggests that people tend to succumb to gender bias when they have limited information. Wherever there’s uncertainty about somebody’s work or skills, stereotypes rush in to fill the gap.

One potential solution? Have the people with firsthand knowledge of the employee’s work judge their performance. It needn’t be just one person or just the employee’s direct manager. It could include their boss as well as their clients or their peers. The point is simply to tap into folks who are actually  in the know, and increase the correlation between good work and getting recognized for it.


A 2012 Harvard study suggests that evaluating job candidates who are pooled into groups before assessing them individually can boost objectivity. Why not try a similar principle for employees’ performance? When we evaluate individuals in isolation, we tend to fall back on gendered heuristics–like, for instance, the tired yet persistent fallacy that women are weak in quantitative roles.

Still, while judging employees in a small groups can reduce gender bias, it’s likely to backfire if the group is too big, for largely the same reason as above: too many people means too much information to hold in mind at once, meaning more reliance on stereotyping. The solution is simple: Review employees in groups that are small enough for evaluators to know a lot about each person and their work.


There’s probably discrimination happening in your company that you just aren’t aware of–much the way I wasn’t until I confronted it personally. Some bias is unconscious, some is conscious and simply unexpressed, and much is unreported.

The fact is that women typically pay real penalties for talking about discrimination, a reality that the #MeToo movement is beginning to draw out into the open. As a society, we still don’t like women defending themselves or requesting that they get more. Knowingly or not, many of us still prefer women to appear selfless. That makes it difficult to prove wrongdoing even when women do get a fair hearing; everything they say sounds self-serving.

What’s worse, a lot of women will never know they’re victims of discrimination. They’ll be told that they progressed more slowly because they simply weren’t good enough. And they’ll believe it.

In my case, the fact that I didn’t get promoted compelled me to reflect on my goals and my definition of success–and how others might see those things, including through biased lenses. In the years that followed, I took a more fulfilling path than I would have considered otherwise. In that sense, I was lucky.


When I was a child, my father would play cassette tapes of motivational speeches while in the car to help him learn what it took to be successful in life. He explained to me what it was that these speakers were talking about, their struggles, and the lessons I could take away from them.

My father always looked out for great speakers and role models to learn and draw motivation from (especially one of his favorites, Zig Ziglar). Today, far more people keep up with this practice, but spools and plastic are rarely a part of the equation.

Instead of listening to cassette tapes, we have motivational and educational speeches available to us 24/7 on the internet. TED Talks are some of today’s most popular internet speeches due to the vast range of different topics offered from their video library.

Event planners have the onerous task of bringing tons of people together under a common goal or theme, so it is only natural that they might need some motivational and educational speeches to help solve their own work related challenges.

Here are the six best TED Talks for event planners!

Alexis Ohanian: How to Make a Splash in Social Media
How do you attract guests to your events if no one seems to know about them? The internet age has changed the way we reach other people, whether it be friends, family, colleagues, customers, attendees, or a random mother in Bulgaria. Anyone can connect to the internet, but what you do with your bandwidth is what defines your event.

Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, explains how to build buzz (or in this case, a splash) online (and an example of one viral humpback whale). This talk is perfect for event marketers and social media managers looking to find out what makes the internet tick.

Jinsop Lee: Design for all Five Senses
When putting together events, most event planners focus on aesthetics and functionality.

Are the tables in the right place? Are there are enough chairs? Is there going to be enough food? How much will everything cost? Will guests be wowed? Will they be inspired to snap photos of your event? Will they share those images on social media?

Event planning often brings out stakeholders’ inner designers.

Jinsop Lee, an industrial designer, believes that there is far more to design than just visual beauty. Lee believes his theory of “five-sense design” is the key for event managers to unlock their guests’ senses of smell, touch, sight, sound, and taste, leading to a high-quality event experience. By applying the five-sense design theory, your guests will immerse themselves into an incredible and satisfying event.

Steven Johnson: Where Good Ideas Come From
Finding inspiration can be difficult, especially on your own.

When was the last time you came up with a great idea? Who were you talking to? What were you doing at that moment? Steven Johnson believes that our stereotypical concept of where new ideas come about, such as the clichéd “lightbulb” moment, is flawed and leads us to shortchange our idea making process. Steven Johnson explains the history of new ideas and what causes them.

New ideas are essential to event planners. Who wants to attend the same event over and over again without innovation or a break from redundancy? Use Johnson’s talk to inspire your creative energy. Your future attendees will thank you for it.

Paolo Cardini: Forget Multitasking, try Monotasking
Our entire lives are jam-packed full of stimuli, information, and tasks, leading us to embrace the mindset of a multitasker even when it is detrimental to our health and our work.

In fact, multitasking has been shown in studies to make us less efficient, especially when trying to deal with unfamiliar tasks. I know this better than most due to my ADHD, which pulls my mind in all different directions, especially while writing.

Paolo Cardini dives into the benefits of simplifying our lives through “monotasking,” the revolutionary idea that you should make an effort to focus on one thing at a time. Although this may seem like such a simple idea that it is stupid to bring up, event planners and managers have a lot to handle when bringing all the pieces of an event together (I will note that event management software does substantially help with this problem). It is important for those in the event industry to not overburden themselves with too much at one time.

Tom Mujec: Build a Tower, Build a Team
Event planners may have the daunting task of bringing all of the elements of an event together, and they tend to be good at it. Yet, problems still happen. They can’t possibly prepare every refreshment, set up every chair, or direct every attendee to where they ought to go. Since event planners are not completely miracle workers, constructing the right team to bring all of the pieces to the table is crucial.

Tom Wujec of Autodesk uses a study conducted using dry spaghetti noodles, a yard of tape, and one marshmallow to explain the right recipe for successful team building in order to produce the best results for any challenge.

David Grady: How to Save the World (or at least yourself) from Bad Meetings
As most would agree, our time is valuable. We all have projects to finish, reports to submit, surveys to answer, and emails to respond to. Imagine if every few hours or so, you had no choice but to sit at your desk and accomplish absolutely nothing before getting back to your job, deadlines be damned.

This is what it’s like when you find yourself stuck in meetings that are either not relevant to your job or are run by inexperienced leaders. David Grady paints a portrait of a business world overwhelmed by inefficient and unproductive meetings and offers his solutions to end the madness and get our meetings back on track.

This talk is perfect for event management teams that suffer from unproductive planning meetings, so that they can spend less time discussing and more time acting.

Originally published Fast Company

Join the conversation! We'd love to hear your thoughts.

Please complete all fields below
Your name *
Email address *
Message *