A look at skills assessments, bias and stereotypes

Do strengths and skills assessments perpetuate gender bias and stereotypes? It’s a complicated question.

An article published in the 2019 issue of Management Learning, titled “‘I Always Knew I was a Little Girly’: The gendering of skills in management training,” implores users of management texts and strength assessments to learn about how gender is understood in the workplace, suggesting that they perpetuate bias and stereotypes based on gender.

In 2008, Sarah Blithe, the article’s author, was working at a consulting firm where she delivered strength-based training sessions to the firm’s clients. In these sessions, Blithe conducted assessment programs based on the Strengths theory developed by Donald O. Clifton and Gallup, which the group would reflect on in discussion afterward. During these discussions, Blithe realized the individuals in her sessions were looking at their results in a way that placed gender stereotypes on specific strengths or skills.

“They were consuming that information through a gendered lens,” Blithe said in an interview about her research. “So they were attributing skill to a particular gender, saying, for example, that harmony or empathy is a classic feminine skill, and aggression and competition are classic masculine skills.” The “gendered lens” is a part of the invisible gender binary structure that’s already present and well-ingrained in society.

The gender binary, which is the classification of gender into masculine or feminine, and gender conformity are deeply entangled in the workplace and occupational roles across industries such as technology, health care, hospitality, manufacturing and more.

This gendered structure is responsible for the stereotypes, inequalities and assumptions about gender that hold women and other groups that have been marginalized back in the workplace, Blithe said. If someone who doesn’t appear masculine, for example, was embodying masculinity, that person can sometimes be punished. “Classically, you can see this in politics,” she said. And for women specifically, she added, embracing too much femininity versus not enough can be a catch-22.

Years later, Blithe, who is now an associate professor of communication studies at University of Nevada-Reno and the chief education officer at Equilibrium, a consulting firm for training and design, returned to those experiences of delivering strengths assessments for her research.

Blithe’s research is based on analysis of the texts that make up the “Strengths” psychology, auto-ethnographic accounts and critical reflection. She looked at her notes from the sessions she conducted — 53 participants in all, across six 90-minute sessions. She said the notes she took then showed how the individuals in her group valued strengths or skills in unequal ways, and that these associations were “strongly tied to gender.”

During her analysis, Blithe discovered that none of the text within the Strengths theory directly mentioned gender. She said these findings were interesting to her and it was evident that people were putting the gender binary structure onto the results. “So using those assessments can never be gender-free because the people consuming them are part of society,” she said.

However, these types of assessments are intended to look past things like gender, race or age, and rather identify what makes each person unique, said Marcus Buckingham, co-creator of the StrengthsFinder and StandOut strength assessments.

Looking beyond gender

“Unquestionably, there is gender stereotyping in our society. We do an awful lot of stereotyping,” Buckingham said. “The strength assessments that I’ve made are obviously trying to do the opposite of that.”

Buckingham said assessments should be built to ensure that no item is more commonly selected by one gender or the other; that the “least interesting” thing about someone should be their gender, therefore destroying any stereotypes about gender created by society.

If someone taking an assessment thinks of a particular strength as being gender-specific, then the person presenting the assessment should help them address their bias. “Anybody who is presenting a strength assessment needs to understand that the point of it is to look past gender or race or age and identify the uniqueness of the human,” he said.

Strength and skill assessments are currently widely used in learning and development because they help managers and people leaders learn more about the individuals who make up their company or team. Gallup’s research on strength-based development suggests that strength assessments have a positive impact on employee engagement and productivity and that workplaces that participated in strength-based development programs also saw an uptick in understanding and respect among co-workers.

These assessment programs can also be very helpful for the individual taking them, too. For example, because they are intended to reveal what makes a person individually unique, Buckingham said assessments are tremendously helpful in helping a person know how they can best contribute within a team.

“We can basically use all the help we can get in terms of understanding who we are, how we think we’re driven and how we can turn that into contribution,” he said. “If we can use a strength assessment to help pinpoint people’s uniqueness on a team, that’s really useful.”

Occupation, gender stereotypes and skills

But strength or skill assessments might not assess everyone in the same way, especially in regard to gender across different occupations. A 2018 article, “Occupational Segregation,” published by the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, suggests that nearly half of the women in the U.S. labor force would have to move to a different occupation in order to eliminate all occupational segregation by gender. The levels of segregation by gender also vary by race, the article notes.

Bias and stereotypes about gender in relation to skill has led to this gender divide across occupations, according to Blithe’s research. She isn’t the first to arrive at this conclusion: In 2014, an experiment published in the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences suggested that unconscious bias — among both men and women — toward women’s mathematical skills was leading to hiring choices that favored men over women, despite both genders performing equally.

Blithe said there are occupations, such as caregiving, management work and education, that are currently mostly taken up by women. “Some people say, ‘Who cares if people do different jobs and if you can see the divisions by gender?’ Well, that really becomes impactful when you look at the wages and occupations that tend to be dominated by women or characterized as feminine, regardless of who’s doing it.” When occupations are devalued, they are paid less, she added, pointing out that a teacher’s salary, regardless of who happens to be receiving it, is an example of this.

Women advancing through the leadership pipeline also face a multitude of barriers, including the gender pay gap, paid family leave and child care offerings, according to a 2018 Chief Learning Officer article, “Women in Leadership: Surmounting Barriers and Bias.”

But there are more barriers to rising through the ranks than just those structural ones. Two more barriers that author and leadership coach Sally Helgesen said she has seen rising women leaders face are a reluctance to claim their own achievements as well as a fear that talking about their skills or strengths could be perceived as being arrogant.

This also applies to different racial or ethnic groups. “In people who represent groups of all kinds, there can be sensitivities about claiming achievements,” Helgesen said. Those who deliver strength assessments or strength-based training need to be aware of those sensitivities, understanding that it could impact the way the results are perceived.

A third issue that concerns women specifically in organizational pipelines is perfectionism, which can impact women’s own assessment of their strengths or skills in the workplace.

“Perfectionism makes it, No. 1, very difficult to accurately assess your strengths because you go in with the presumption that whatever it is, you could always be better. It’s hard to admit a strength when your standard for a strength is going to be perfection all the time,” Helgesen said. “So in that way, that can undermine you.”

Assessing inclusively

For those who conduct strength assessments, being more inclusive can mean simply being sensitive to the way different people view strengths and weaknesses, Helgesen said, while acknowledging how these views differ among men and women, as well as race, ethnicity or age.

There’s no perfect weapon for society to do away with the gender binary, stereotyping and other forms of unconscious bias completely, but Blithe said organizations that adopt training programs or partnerships that support diversity and inclusion will have an easier time addressing them and undoing some of that binary way of thinking.

This also means that L&D leaders should make sure they are thinking inclusively about their organization and the way popular management texts, such as the ones based on the “Strengths” psychology and other similar skill or strength assessments, are used in different training programs and initiatives.

A 2019 article published by The New York Times, “To Promote Inclusivity, Stay Away from Personality Assessments,” suggests personality assessments, like Myers-Briggs, might be too broad, and don’t take into account gender, race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status or disability, which can impact how someone interprets a question, or even a score.

“While not intentionally discriminatory, these assessments tend to box individuals into a narrow stereotype, which can have a negative professional impact on those with less-desired personality traits,” writes the article’s author, Quinisha Jackson-Wright.

Humans are more complex than just one assessment, but Blithe has seen first-hand how these assessments can benefit people in the workplace, which is why it would be precarious to get rid of them altogether. “In my experience, some people have said these kinds of personal reflections are the best things they’ve ever learned about themselves at work,” she said.

Rather than using the results of an assessment in order to predict a person’s future behavior, Blithe said it could be more helpful for managers or leaders to view these strengths as the way a person feels about a certain job or task, or simply a snapshot of that person’s day. “I also think managers can fail when they rely on these tests to determine who their people are, when it’s really just one photograph.”

Popular management texts, or whatever is the biggest, newest “guru piece,” need to be interrogated, Blithe said. “Some of the stuff that is in there may be glossing right over these inequities.”