My academic years presented a clear formula for measuring merit: everyone got the same assignments or tests and the final grade depended on one's efforts and talents in preparing for these. I started my professional career in a global investment bank in New York City. It was a very competitive and somewhat political environment, yet it was fairly meritocratic. Only the merit criteria changed drastically from my college years so I had to figure out the written and unwritten rules about how promotions and job assignments were distributed:
The formal rule was a transparent job description for each seniority level; one could clearly identify the skills that were required of an analyst, associate, VP, etc and was judged against this criteria. There was also a estimated timeline to promotion (2-3 years per level if one did a good job). The informal rule, which was just as important albeit not openly communicated, was getting noticed and recognized by senior management. Here, the bank did a reasonable job in organizing formal and informal interactions between employees of different levels of seniority. Moreover, it was common to have teams of different seniority levels so I got access to senior people in my daily work. It was my job then to make sure that those interactions counted. In many companies the informal criteria plays a bigger role and the ambiguity makes it harder for one (especially from a minority group) to get ahead. For many women who take my courses, this is a major barrier to progress. I often help them overcome school days' approaches of focusing on task execution and learn how to navigate informal norms around promotions and accessing senior people. Their companies and managers don't make it easy on them by neglecting to provide a clear criteria of what it takes to get to the next level or feedback about what they need to improve. In fact, research shows that women are more likely to receive vague feedback on their performance, be criticized more harshly, not be seen as leadership material and have this feedback used against them in promotion discussions.
The above tendencies have consequences. In their Women in the Workplace 2018 report, McKinsey and LeanIn.org, share key findings from 279 companies and over 64 thousand employees. One of these is that women, and especially women of color, have lower chances relative to men to get promoted to management positions and be recognized for their achievements.
Where do we go from here?
Many companies focus on diversity recruiting but if we want to change the gender imbalance in leadership we must also look at how performance evaluation and promotions work in organizations and correct for bias. Here are some ways forward:
Companies should establish clear job descriptions and career tracks (bonus points for making salary ranges for each level transparent to employees)
Managers need be trained on giving clear and constructive feedback
HR and Senior Management must play the role of devil's advocate in challenging gender stereotypes and bias in performance review sessions.
For professional women:
Figuring out what it takes to get promoted in one’s organization is not always straightforward but with some investigative work and relationship building you can improve your chances:
Find out if your company has a formal career track and/or job description for the next level you’d like to be promoted to. Do an assessment on how you stack up against those requirements and identify specific examples of how you are already operating at the next level. Share these in a clear and concise manner with your manager.
Bring up the discussion about a promotion way before the end of the performance cycle. If your manager challenges the merit of the promotion, hold him or her accountable by asking what are the specific skills you need to be working on to get to the next level and ask for his or her commitment to help you work on those skills. Extra points if you can get this in writing.
Identify who decides on promotions in your organization. Is it your manager or is it his or her manager or someone even higher up? Make sure to develop relationships with all of these people.