Early in March I wrote a post on the future for men in a corporate world which often appears only interested in attracting and promoting women. In it I said:
Where you don’t find as many women is in the technical and production side of a business, i.e. the bit that makes the company money. In other words, women prevail in the support services and men tend to dominate the departments which create the product that brings in the revenue.
The main difference between the production side and support services is that the former is very much goal-driven, while the latter is process-driven. Modern corporations have reached the point that huge swathes of their organisation, perhaps even most of it, is taken up by processes: ensuring various bureaucratic steps are followed to the letter with the involvement of myriad people and with maximum discussion, with the outcome being of secondary importance. It is these areas, particularly in relation to subjects such as HR and financial and legal compliance, that have driven the growth of corporation headcounts in recent years. Meanwhile it is the goal-driven parts of the business, where the process is important but nevertheless very much secondary to achieving a set outcome, which has seen headcounts reduced as automation, outsourcing, and efficiency improvements have been applied.
In short, the percentage of employees engaged in process-driven activities (compliance, HR, legal, finance, general services, etc.) has increased relative to those engaged in goal-driven activities (sales, production, maintenance, etc.) This brings me onto this article in the BBC on hidden sexist language in the workplace that contains this passage:
In performance reviews, women tend to receive feedback that’s vague (“you had a great year” for example) or sexist, such as a disproportionate amount of comments on communication style, while men get clearer feedback about specific skills related to actual job performance.
Of course you wouldn’t expect somebody at the BBC to consider this, but could it be different language is used for women during their appraisals because their objectives are so much more difficult to define, working as they do in process-driven positions? Perhaps men tend to get clearer feedback on specific skills related to actual job performance because they are working in roles where performance can be measured, i.e. in goal-driven roles. When setting employee objectives, managers in modern corporations have been advised to use the SMART acronym: Specific, Measurable, Agreed upon, Realistic, Time-related.
It’s easy to see how this would apply to objectives related to positions in production or maintenance, and especially sales. But for process-driven roles? I bet half the people in the support services couldn’t come up with a single objective that was measurable. How do you give somebody working in a diversity or HR department a SMART objective that doesn’t break down into vague, woolly guff or contain the words “managed to avoid a lawsuit”? An employee in charge of maintenance will be given an objective of 95% uptime on the piece of machinery under their supervision, and come the appraisal will be told:
“Well done, you kept the damned thing running! Your intervention during that unplanned shutdown that occurred at 4am that wet, November night was particularly impressive, as you’d arranged for spares to be kept on hand for just that eventuality.”
But what do you tell somebody who is working in the travel department?
“Yeah, erm…I see you managed to process one stage of the paperwork involved with the booking of hotels and you checked the concerned employee obtained the correct signatures each time, and when he didn’t you sent it back. Oh, and also you were quick to inform that other employee when he was trying to book into a hotel that was conveniently located but, alas, not on our approved list. Erm, well done.”
Or the diversity department:
“Right, I see you have sent out an email informing everybody that it is International Women’s Day. Yes, good. Well done. And your participation in the meeting about which ratio of Africans to Asians we should have on the front of our annual report was appreciated, although perhaps next time don’t point out so loudly that the people in the photo don’t actually work for us and we bought the image from a PR firm.”
Faced with carrying out an appraisal for somebody in a process-driven position with a vague, woolly job description which makes setting SMART objectives extremely difficult, is it any wonder managers simply say “you had a great year” instead of going into details of what they have actually achieved?
I suspect this supposed language disparity between the performance reviews of men and women is less about sexism and more reflective of the sorts of job each sex is employed in. A good way to test this theory would be to look at how women doing the same jobs as men are spoken to in appraisals, and probably the best place to do this would be in sales and marketing departments: they are very much goal-driven and are chock-full of women.
The next step would be to find those employees to whom vague feedback has been given and ask their managers to set some SMART objectives. If they struggle to do so then the employees should be fired along with the managers because they shouldn’t even be there in the first place.