Shelley J. Correll: Inside the Black Box of Organizational Life: The Gendered Language of Performance Assessment


Monday, January 29, 2018, 12:00pm to 1:30pm


Allison Dining Room

Shelley J. Correll, Professor of Sociology and, by courtesy, Organizational Behavior; and the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, Stanford University.

Shelley J. CorrellBy Shelley J. Correll,  Katherine R Weisshaar, Alison T. Wynn and JoAnne Delfino Wehner

Most organizations today have implemented formal procedures for evaluating employee performance to ensure that employees are judged on merit-based factors and not on ascribed characteristics such as gender and race. Using a novel, random sample of employee performance reviews written by their managers at a large, Fortune 500 technology company, we investigate whether formal evaluation procedures operate as a “great leveler,” securing meritocracy, or as “smokescreen,” creating the appearance of being meritocratic but nonetheless producing unequal outcomes.

We assess whether gender stereotypes are reflected in the language of these written reviews, and whether similar types of language are associated with different rating outcomes for women and men employees, ratings that directly affect pay and promotion decisions.

We find that while performance reviews contain clear descriptions of meritocratic factors, there are nonetheless important gender differences in the language contained in the reviews. For example, women receive more vague feedback than men and more criticisms of their personalities, whereas men are described as more visionary. Further, we find that some types of language, such as “taking charge,” are associated with the highest ratings for men but not women.

By analyzing managers’ language use in evaluations, this research nuances the debate about whether formal procedures operate as a smokescreen, concealing and perpetuating bias, or a great leveler, securing meritocracy. In addition, this paper contributes to theories of status, bias, and stereotyping by uncovering novel pathways through which gender influences performance assessments in actual workplaces.

We conclude with practical suggestions for moving organizations closer to being meritocratic rather simply appearing to be. 

About the speaker

Shelley Correll is professor of sociology and organizational behavior at Stanford University and the Barbara D. Finberg Director of the Clayman Institute for Gender Research. Her expertise is in the areas of gender, workplace dynamics and organizational culture.

She has received numerous national awards for her research on the “motherhood penalty,” research that demonstrates how motherhood influences the workplace evaluations, pay and job opportunities of mothers.

Professor Correll recently led a nationwide, interdisciplinary project on “redesigning work” that evaluates how workplaces structures and practices can reconfigured to be simultaneously more inclusive and more innovative. She is also studying how gender stereotypes and organizational practices affect the entry and retention of women in technical professions and how the growth of the craft beer industry affects the founding and success of women brewers.  

She is currently writing a book called Delivering on Diversity: Eliminating Bias and Spurring Innovation



See also: Spring 2018