Innovative employees are often coveted by managers because of their ability to see opportunities for improvement in areas of the business that otherwise would go overlooked.
If these employees are women, however, they are less likely to be rewarded in their performance evaluations than if they are men.
While few would likely admit that this mindset applies to them, research I recently conducted with co-authors at Leeds University Business School and The University of Western Australia suggests this is a common occurrence. In a series of three studies, the gender-based perceptions of innovation manifested themselves consistently.
In the first study, respondents were shown photos of three men and three women and asked to rate their first impressions on several traits and qualities. Even after accounting for attractiveness, competence, likeability, and warmth, men were rated significantly higher than women on creativity and innovative work behavior.
Taking the knowledge that both men and women managers can struggle from a “think innovation—think male” bias, we looked at how this bias impacted performance reviews. After analyzing data from 153 employees spanning six organizations, we observed that the relationship between innovative work behavior and supervisor performance appraisals differed by gender. Namely, innovative work behavior corresponded with greater positivity for overall reviews of men, but not for women.
Perhaps most troubling of our results is that female employees receive more favorable performance ratings when their levels of innovative work behaviors are lower than when they are higher. If breaking through the stereotypical norms actually penalizes women innovators, this could further discourage women from exhibiting innovative behavior.
Lastly, we attempted to quantify the extent to which performance evaluations are affected. By controlling for various other factors, we experimentally determined the effect of innovative behaviors on performance evaluations is 2.5 times larger for men than for women.
So what are organizations and leadership to do?
The first step is acknowledging the problem. Most organizations certainly would argue they strive to promote innovative work behaviors among all employees irrespective of gender, but our research shows that is most likely not the case. Managers and coworkers must be cognizant of their own biases when evaluating innovative actions of their subordinates and peers.
But being aware is just a start. Organizations must also implement formal training programs in which they learn in greater detail the various ways that performance reviews have historically been vessels of discriminatory and unfair criticism.
By taking a proactive approach, organizations and managers communicate to their workforces a commitment to fostering innovative work behaviors among male and female employees alike while striving for a more egalitarian means of rewarding that behavior.
Organizations that don’t take steps to correct this bias are likely to lose high-performing employees as more women leave the corporate world to start their own businesses. Research on this trend has found that a main reason women choose to leave a job to start their own businesses is that they find their contributions are not recognized by their employers.
The workplace is an extension of society, which has long undervalued women as innovators. Although Thomas Edison is a household name, Margaret Knight remains largely unknown a century after her death, despite her own inventions during the same time period. Journalists of the day nicknamed her “the lady Edison” or “a woman Edison” rather than allowing her contributions to stand for themselves.
Unfortunately, we’ve progressed little since then. While the biases that were once professed prominently and unabashedly have quieted, their deep seeded roots have taken shape in corporate America and still exist.
The truth is women continue to experience sexism in the workplace in a variety of ways. Our research lays bare a persistent double standard in the expectations of male and female employees which suppresses female innovation and cuts our collective talent pool in half from unlocking even greater potential.
Derek R. Avery is a professor and the David C. Darnell Chair in Principled Leadership at the Wake Forest University School of Business.