Imagine a 10/10 employee—the perfect team member, a natural leader, someone who meets and exceeds expectations at every opportunity. What does that person look and sound like?
Now change the scale from 1–10 to 1–6. Picture a 6/6 employee. What sort of image appears in your mind?
Did you see 2 different people?
Better question: Was either of them a woman?
As silly as this mental exercise seems, it’s at the core of a recent, real-world study on a serious issue—namely, the gap between men’s and women’s performance reviews. Report after report has shown that men earn consistently higher ratings than women in supposedly objective, quantitative performance evaluations. Even when gender is the only attribute that differentiates him from an otherwise identical female colleague, a male employee is more likely to receive a 10/10 score.
Researchers Lauren Rivera and András Tilcsik sought to find out why. And believe it or not, they discovered that certain numbers, well, tip the scale.
Rivera and Tilcsik first looked at “a large, North American university that — for reasons unrelated to gender — changed its faculty teaching evaluation system from a 1-10 to a 1-6 scale.” In the university’s old 10-point system, they write, “men received significantly higher ratings than women in the most male-dominated fields.” After switching to the 6-point system, the university “entirely eliminated this gender gap.” The researchers sought to replicate these surprising findings, so they conducted an experiment. Several hundred students received identical transcripts of a lecture with either a male or female instructor’s name attached: “Professor John Anderson” or “Professor Julie Anderson.” Half of the students were asked to rate John or Julie out of 10; the other half were assigned the 6-point scale. The students were also asked to “write down the words that first came to mind when they thought of the instructor’s teaching performance.”
Here’s what the experiment revealed:
“When analyzing the words that students used to describe the instructor’s performance, we found that the top score on the 10-point scale evoked images of brilliant, extraordinary performance. We also found that raters tended to associate that kind of performance with John rather than Julie. This result is consistent with the longstanding cultural association of the number 10 with perfection, as well as earlier research showing that evaluators more heavily scrutinize women’s performance for errors and reserve labels like “star,” “superstar,” and “genius” for men. Given the stereotype of male brilliance, the perfection that a 10/10 connotes is an elusive performance bar for women.
The top score on the 6-point scale, in contrast, did not come with such strong performance expectations. To receive a 6/6, it was enough for instructors to be perceived as very good; they didn’t need to be seen as brilliant or extraordinary. As a result, though students using the 6-point scale were still more likely to use superlatives to describe John’s teaching performance, they were just as willing to assign 6/6 marks to Julie as to John. The underlying stereotype of male brilliance was still present, but a 6/6 rating didn’t elicit as strong cultural images of perfection and brilliance as a 10/10, so the 6-point scale limited the expression of bias, and the gender gap vanished.”
We found this research fascinating not only for its results, but for its implications. Forward-thinking HR professionals might want to consider other ways they can “limit the expression of bias” within their organizations. Many systems in business have the appearance of objectivity but nonetheless perpetuate inequality, leading to lawsuits, talent train, and other significant risks. These systems are, after all, designed and administered by humans—and we’re all more subjective than we like to think.
Regardless, I would advise against calling someone you work with “a 10” or “a 6.” Good luck explaining that expression of bias.