In order to promote fairness and transparency, and to reduce companies’ exposure to risk, talent management matters. Elements such as compensation, succession and development have been guided by performance management for the past few decades. Performance management is the process of communicating job expectations to employees, engaging employees in goal-setting and coaching conversations, evaluating employee performance, and making talent management decisions related to compensation, placement and development. One popular input to performance management and talent development is the use of multisource feedback (often called 360-degree feedback), where employees are rated on their performance by managers, peers, direct reports and even customers. This input has several advantages, but it carries its share of risks and pitfalls.

In a nutshell… What we found:

  • Male leaders are typically rated higher on 360-degree performance evaluations, by themselves and by others, especially on agentic1 qualities which are consistent with the stereotypical idea of male.
  • Women are advised to act in more agentic ways, even while being praised for having strengths in these areas.
    • Women receive more feedback focused on the kind of person they are, and on interpersonal/team related areas, while men receive more process and business focused feedback.
    • By valuing and evaluating competencies that are agentic and communal, transactional and transformational, organisations can develop leaders who enact the full range of possible leadership behaviours that has been shown to lead to success.

Women and men are evaluated differently

Some managers may be surprised to learn that men and women are evaluated differently when it comes to performance reviews each year. And the cumulative effect of these differences could have a meaningful impact on overall business performance. This can derail progress of all employees to the extent that neither women nor men receive balanced feedback that is needed for improved business performance. Specifically:

  • Women receive less business-focused feedback compared to men (YSC, 2014).
  • Women receive more vague feedback than men (Correll & Simard, 2016).
  • Feedback given to women focuses more on team achievements and that given to men focuses on their independent contributions
    (Silverman, 2015).
  • Women tend to rate themselves lower than men, but those ratings are more consistent with others’ ratings of them – i.e. men show higher discrepancies between self, and observer, ratings with their self-ratings being more inflated compared to women’s (Mayo, 2016).
  • Numerical feedback (i.e. ratings) shows gender differences that qualitative feedback might not (Biernat, Tocci & Williams, 2012).

Evaluation standards themselves are gendered

The differences in how employees are evaluated matter because performance is evaluated against standards of performance that are, in turn, linked to the business strategy. Often, these very definitions of leadership and performance in organisations are gendered, tending to be more consistent with male stereotypes (Koenig, Eagly, Mitchell & Ristikari, 2011).

Women tend to get caught between two unpalatable options: to act in stereotypically ‘feminine’ ways and risk not being taken seriously as a leader, or to act more ‘masculine’ and be seen as ‘not ladylike’. This is the classic Double Bind dilemma (Catalyst, 2007) and is also related to the Think Manager Think Male phenomenon which establishes greater overlap between masculine attributes and leadership attributes than between feminine attributes and leadership attributes (Schein & Davidson, 1993).

Paying attention to gendered performance management also matters, because notions of work and leadership themselves are expanding. The ‘agentic-versus-communal1 characteristics’ distinction applies here, and parallels the transactional-transformational leadership styles distinction (Eklund, Barry & Grunberg, 2017; Eagly & Carli, 2003) that has been well established by research. In fact, research shows that transformational leadership behaviours have much greater impact on outcomes as varied as employee satisfaction and firm performance (Dumdum, Lowe & Avolio, 2013), compared to transactional behaviours. Taking that argument further, if transformational (and communal) styles are this beneficial, it stands to reason that leaders should be provided with balanced feedback that replaces the prior focus on transactional (and agentic) behaviours.

India Inc. – Victim to gendered performance management?

In the face of all this, we set out to answer a few broad questions:

  1. How do these patterns manifest similarly or differently in India?
  2. If so, do these differences emerge in both numerical and narrative feedback?
  3. What does this mean for the career growth for people of all genders?

Our findings have meaningful implications for how organisations develop future leaders. Overall, women had fewer raters provide feedback which highlights a gap to be filled in terms of exposure to feedback. Yet, the areas of development (versus strengths) feedback women received exceeded the amount their male counterparts did. Moreover, the nature of that feedback – numerical and narrative2 – also differed, as seen below.

Out of the 72 competenciesassessed, 20 showed significant gender differences, where men were rated higher than women. There seemed to be fewer significant gender differences in constructive or Communal competencies such as Flexible Influencing Styles and Developing Others compared to Agentic competencies.

Men rated themselves higher than women on competencies like Commercial Mindset, Developing High Performance Teams, Performance Mindset and Authentic Engagement. Men were rated higher by others on competencies like Adaptive Thinking & Problem Solving and Sustaining which may be seen as more agentic (and therefore consistent with both masculine and leadership stereotypes). Men were rated higher by both themselves and others on traditionally agentic competencies like Strategic Focus and Driving.

In a nutshell… What we did:

YSC India looked at numerical ratings on 72 leadership competencies, provided for 1,237 men and 304 women, as well as narrative (open-ended/text) feedback on 73 men and 27 women in mid-to-senior management across 15 organisations in different industries in India.

  • Numerical ratings were analysed for differences between genders and also by source (i.e. ratings by Self versus Others).
  • Narrative feedback – both strengths and development areas – was analysed in terms of the following:
    • Attributes: Was the feedback more agentic or communal?
    • Focus: Was the feedback directed towards the Person, Task or Behaviour of the individual?
    • Content: Was the feedback about Individual Characteristics (e.g. resilience, poor work ethic), Interpersonal Skills (e.g. collaboration, networking) or Business Skills (e.g. commercial acumen, planning)?

“Act (more) like a man”

Ironically, even though women’s narrative feedback praised their agentic attributes when it came to their strengths, the recommended areas of development for women still focused on agentic attributes. Specifically, a majority (two thirds) of the comments on strengths provided to women emphasised traits like self-advancement, independence, assertiveness and decisiveness whereas only one third emphasised traits like developing others, collaboration, etc. This changed across development areas where comments for women focused more on agentic attributes as compared to men.

“Lots of times I’m told that I am aggressive. […] My reaction to that is you’re looking at another male colleague who is doing the same thing and calling him assertive but calling me aggressive…” – Female, Senior Management, Financial Services

Process or person?

A similar pattern emerged when looking at the comments in terms of their Focus. Men’s strengths were described more in terms of the process or ‘how’ they got work done compared to women’s (29% versus 22%). Women’s strengths were more likely to feature personal or ‘what kind of person/leader’ comments (60% versus 56%).

“I do see that in the organisation direct feedback is an issue and much more for women. […]Directness, assertive, constructive feedback and clearly telling women what’s working and what’s not [is] lacking” – Female, Mid-Senior Management, Information Technology

Focus on business

Across content, there were no significant differences across the three areas. However, women’s strengths in the Interpersonal domain were highlighted more than men’s (30% versus 21%). Men’s strengths in the Business domain were showcased more than women’s (34% versus 28%).

Conclusions and Implications

There is a parallel between the transformational-transactional leadership distinction and the communal-agentic qualities distinction. Other research has established the benefits of the transformational leadership approach. If this is the case, and if women behave in more communal (and therefore, more transformational) ways, there should be a case made for more focused efforts to develop women into leadership positions (Alimo-Metcalfe, 2004). Yet, the feedback given to women – such a critical element in their development journeys – is biased in predictably stereotypical ways and holds women back. Organisations and organisational leaders, regardless of gender, can benefit from more balanced leadership, focused on tapping into the full spectrum of leadership behaviours that is important for success.

We recommend that organisations serious about building strong leadership teams and enhancing gender diversity and inclusion focus on the following:

  • Evaluate the standards of performance against which leaders are assessed to ensure that they align with business strategy.
  • Review your organisational leadership model to see how ‘masculine’ stereotyped it is, and whether, indeed, those competencies are critical for success in the future.
  • Consider your performance management process –from job descriptions used in hiring, to promotion processes and succession planning, up to how ‘high potential’ or ‘high performance’ is defined in your organisation. Do these definitions assume an outdated, male-stereotyped model of work?
  • Perform talent audits randomly to determine where performance management works well and less well, and share best practices openly with line managers.
  • Are your leaders trained to provide balanced feedback to all employees? i.e. feedback focused on both, the relationship and business/task aspects of work?
  • Periodically review how developmental feedback and developmental opportunities are provided to women and men, across the ladder.
  • Provide training to your managers on feedback receiving and giving, and implement an open-feedback culture.

By valuing and evaluating competencies that are agentic and communal, transactional and transformational, organisations can grow leaders that enact the full range of possible leadership behaviours that has been shown to lead to success.



1Agentic qualities are those that emphasize self-advancement, independence, assertiveness, control and decisiveness (such as determined, dominant, competitive). In contrast, communal attributes are nurturing traits that emphasize maintenance of social relationships, social activities like consensus building, developing others and collaboration (such as warm, helpful, cooperative).

2Insights from narrative feedback indicates trends and patterns but not statistically significant differences.