Women Are More Likely Than Men To Be Told “White Lies” In Performance Reviews

By Emily Reynolds

It’s not uncommon to tell a white lie at work: why you took a slightly too-long lunch break or how much you’ve really done on that big project. Often, white lies are socially useful — telling someone that you like what they’re wearing is probably a kinder option than admitting that you hate it, for example.

When it comes to performance reviews, however, white lies are less beneficial. The whole point of such a review is to help improve how someone is working and identify and mitigate potential problems, so lying defeats the object. And according to a new study from Cornell University’s Lily Jampol and Vivian Zayas, published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, it’s women who most often bear the brunt of untruthful performance reviews.

To build on previous research suggesting that women and men receive different kinds of performance evaluations, the team recruited 182 participants who read a hypothetical scenario in which a manager was giving feedback to an underperforming employee.  They learnt that the manager had six feedback options to choose from, ranging from the most truthful and harshest statement (which most closely matched the manager’s actual evaluation of the employee’s poor performance), to the nicest but least truthful statement. Participants were randomly assigned to one of six conditions in which they saw a check mark next to the feedback that was actually given.

Participants then guessed whether the employee was male or female, and were asked to indicate what the manager’s perceptions were of the worker’s warmth, sincerity, confidence and competence. They also rated how likely the manager would be to assign an important task to the employee in the future.

As expected, participants tended to assume that employees shown less accurate but kinder feedback were women: two-thirds of participants believed that an employee given the least truthful but nicest evaluation was a woman, for instance, while just 7% thought that an employee given the most truthful and harshest feedback was female. Results also suggested some stereotyping around gender and traits: those who believed the employee was a woman also believed that the manager perceived her to be less confident, and as feedback got kinder and less accurate were more likely to assume the manager perceived her as warm.

A second study looked at whether people would actually be more likely to tell white lies to under-performing women than under-performing men. First, 66 participants read and rated two mediocre essays they were told had just been written by a pair of students participating remotely (in actual fact, there were no real writers taking part). Initially, participants evaluated these essays from 0 to 100% on dimensions like “focus” and “logic”, providing feedback only to the researchers.

At this point, the first names of each writer were revealed: Sarah and Andrew. Participants were then asked to provide ratings directly to each writer, and give some feedback, which independent coders rated on positivity and constructiveness. Participants also rated the writers on warmth, competence and future ability, and indicated what percentage of the truth they believed they had told Sarah or Andrew.

Mirroring results from the first study, participants were more likely to tell white lies to the writer they believed was a woman, with participants giving Sarah more favourable evaluations during the second phase of the experiment than during the first. Participants rating Andrew showed no difference in evaluation. Feedback for Sarah was also more positive than feedback for Andrew. Interestingly, the majority of participants (65%) were aware of having told white lies, but also reported that they gave equally truthful feedback to Sarah and Andrew, suggesting a lack of awareness of the gendered dimension.

Given the biases many women still face in the workplace, the results seem counterintuitive – surely women are rated less kindly than male colleagues? The team argues that gender stereotypes are at play here. Women are often perceived as less confident than their male counterparts, as this study showed. A manager may therefore decide to lie because they believe they will be boosting a female employee’s low confidence. Another suggestion is that women are still seen as a low-powered group: criticism, therefore, may be perceived as needless denigration.

Either way, such “benevolent sexism” is not helpful. Though on the surface a kinder performance evaluation may seem positive, it may be holding women back, failing to explain how they could improve at work. It can also feed into ideas that women are inferior or subordinate to men and therefore need protecting.

Whereas other parts of HR or management processes have used techniques such as blind hiring to remove bias, it’s harder to see what kinds of adaptations could be made to tackle these tendencies – you can’t give blind performance evaluations, after all. Understanding more about how women experience benevolent and non-benevolent sexism is a start, but there’s much more work to be done to eradicate many obstacles in their way.

 Gendered White Lies: Women Are Given Inflated Performance Feedback Compared With Men

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest

8 thoughts on “Women Are More Likely Than Men To Be Told “White Lies” In Performance Reviews”

  1. It’s jarring to read this with no acknowledgement of the racial bias. White has meant “morally or spiritually pure” for centuries, and the OED’s first listing of “white” to mean “free from malignity or evil intent; beneficent, innocent, harmless” is the same 14th-century citation as it gives for “white lie.”

    1. It’s interesting that you interpret the use of colours in the context of race, and you are unaware that this is not a universal. To me, this looks like a conditioning — when you are a hammer everything looks like a nail. When you are conditioned to think in terms of race, you view every statement in terms of how it can be applied to race.

      When I see “white” as in “white lie”, I see it’s etymology in terms of light, as in illumination. With bright sunlight we can see things clearly and they are illuminated. In the “dark” of night, it is harder to make things out, see what they are, and it’s where predators can hide. A “white lie” is one that is more illuminated, more open, more transparent in purpose; as opposed to a “dark lie” which is hidden (in the dark), more potentially damaging (like a predator hiding in the dark of night), and more in the interest of the predator using deception of darkness to pounce on you for their personal interests at the expense of yours. This day/night, illuminated/unilluminated, light/dark duality exists across cultures and time independent of race and even long before those cultures had any significant contact with races of significantly different skin colour.

      For example, the Dauist dark and light, chaos and order, often seen in the yin-yang symbol, is documented at least in 600 BCE in the Tao Te Ching (Lao Tzu). This had nothing to do with race they’d have had no cultural contact with others of dark skin anyway, with first documented contacts with Africans during the Tang Dynasty (600 CE to 900 CE), or about 1200 to 1500 years later. Plus, the modern connotations of “white” in terms of race do not, and never have, applied to Asians.

      It would not even have occurred to me to link the “white” of a “white lie” to race were it not for your comment. Historically speaking race is clearly not where the connotations of white/black are connected to day/night, order/chaos, good/bad.

      Also, while skin colour differentiation was obviously noticeable and differentiated for eons, the specific associations of Europeans as “white” and Africans as “black” is very recent. Clearly the true colours more on a scale from light beige to dark brown as a function of skin pigment. The use of “white” and “black” in modern terms started around late 17th century with the 5 race colours defined by the Göttingen School of History.

      So the question then is why does this new issue linking race and morality through associated colour tone appear in contemporary discussions, such as your own interpretation. Where does that come from? Are people taught it? Are people conditioned to think that way? Does it happen organically? How common is it? How do we best undo it?

      As far as I know, this way of thinking is very rare and very recent. I’m almost 50 and until I read your comment today, I had never heard anybody link these different colour metaphors and assert them as “racial bias”. A web search reveals that you aren’t the first, obviously, but it doesn’t appear to be very common and there are lot of people who address that linkage as being incorrect.

      My bigger concern, from a psychological point of view, is that regardless of history, is that linkage common and/or growing? We obviously cannot undo thousands of years of history of the use of dark/light metaphors across multiple cultures, and clearly most societies and people can use them without linking them to race; so, can we undo this contemporary tendency and if so, how?

      Thanks for your comment. Hearing a unique point of view on the topic has made me think about it and wonder about the underlying psychology behind it. It could be an indication of a new and growing problem of social interpretation that could lead to problems.

  2. There’s one more factor I’d consider, in that these days people are terrified of offending or ‘getting it wrong’ when it comes to women and minorities, as well as needing to meet staff quotas. This overly PC and toxic atmosphere could be playing a role.

  3. Even though we are aware of the differences in interview performance between the two genders. It’s the language that is used that renders women to appear less confident. e.g. The classic “l feel” versus ” l think”.

    In my experience male interviewers stay more engaged if one uses dynamic language, e.g “aim, target, success.”
    Female interviewees know this, but still trip up, l think, it’s because females naturally aim to bring people together, and not compete.

  4. In reading this it is not clear to me if they followed individuals through the process, or make connections based on statistical grouping. E.g., “the majority of participants (65%) were aware of having told white lies, but also reported that they gave equally truthful feedback to Sarah and Andrew, suggesting a lack of awareness of the gendered dimension”.

    Were these independent bulk statistics, or individual combinations? To see the difference, suppose there were 100 participants, and 65 people (65%) — Group A — were aware they told white lies. (How many actually told white lies isn’t clear or needed here.) Then, the other 35 people — Group B — and 30 of Group A — said that they gave equal answers to Sarah and Andrew, totaling 65 people (65%) — Group C.

    Statistically you can say 65% (Group A) knew they were telling white lies, and 65% (Group C) said they gave equal answers, but they aren’t all the same people. Only 30 people were in both groups A and C. It would be more useful to say Participant 1 told a white lie, knew he told a white lie, applied it to Sarah only, and denied giving different results to Andrew and Sarah. The connection to individuals is important.

    I’ve seen enough studies that miss that group statistics and individuals can have different behaviours, e.g., if an individual prefers A>B and B>C, then they must prefer A>C. But in groups you can have A>B, B>C, and C>A without any individual giving contradictory preferences. (This is the Condorcet voting problem.)

    Hence the need to follow individuals through these sorts of studies to look for prevalence of awareness or not. It’s not clear to me in this article if they did that.

  5. I would be interested to know the genders of the participants, and whether that affected their perceptions.

  6. Two thoughts,
    1. Does the same thing happen in reverse – ie do different genders deliver different levels of white lies ? and
    2. Is there any actual real hard evidence that modern performance management systems as executed actually improve performance?

  7. After reading this paper in detail, there are some serious concerns about its methodology that leads me to question how it passed through peer review. I can only think that the reason is to fulfil some ‘women as victims’ narrative.

    Firstly, the power statistical analyses were poorly justified. The effect sizes were postulated to be medium (r = .3) to large (r = .5) without any justification as to why this is so (e.g., based on meta-analytic research, impact analysis). This is given the fact that most effect sizes in Social Psychological research tend to be in the small-medium range (around r = .15). This is problematic given that, for example, it resulted in Study 2’s sample being only 66!

    Secondly, this is another undergraduate as participants study. What is problematic with this is that undergraduates are used as ‘experts’ in what they were tasked to do – in Study 1, they were tasked to be expert observers in Human Resource procedures (which the participants are neither experts nor are trained observers). In Study 2, they were tasked to be markers of academic essays, which they are also not qualified nor trained to do…

    These problems lead me to discount the generalisabilty of its results.

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