Gender bias takes many forms in the workplace. Women are commonly perceived to be less suitable –and less capable – in traditionally masculine roles. They’re also judged negatively over the way they speak and act, and walk a fine line between being confident and seen as bossy. Women are also less likely to be given credit where it is due.
Implicit bias can also impact the way women are given and receive feedback. Good feedback is essential, whether it’s positive or negative. It allows people to recognise their skills and abilities and identify areas that need improvement, so they can develop and progress in their career. Feedback also clarifies expectations too.
Research shows that gender bias can have a significant influence on feedback and performance reviews, putting women at a disadvantage. But how?
Telling white lies is something many of us do to keep the peace. For example, when your partner cooks a less-than-successful dinner – and you don’t want to hurt their feelings. But when honest feedback is needed in the workplace, they can cause problems.
Researchers Lily Jampol and Vivian Zayas, an associate professor of psychology at Cornell University, found women are more likely to be given inaccurate feedback on their performance. Two tests carried out for the study discovered that compared with men, women are given less truthful but kinder information. Although this is often to preserve relationships and avoid hurting people’s feelings, this can be a problem.
“Given that developmental performance feedback is a ubiquitous and important process in most workplaces and of many people's working lives, access to fair and accurate feedback should be available to anyone needing improvement, regardless of his or her social group,” the authors wrote. “Here we have exposed one factor that may, to a certain degree, impede this access – being a woman.”
The study adds to a growing body of research showing gender bias when given feedback. In another study, Stanford researchers ran a comparison of written performance reviews. The feedback, which was given to employees at three high-tech companies and one professional services firm, was full of detail and “actionable” advice. But for women, the feedback was vague and less specific – essentially, far less helpful.
While the men had a “clearer picture” of what they had done well, as well as specific guidance to help them develop, women did not. Instead, reviews given to women had vague praise like “you had a great year.”
Without insightful information about where they have succeeded and where they need improvement, women face significant hurdles in their professional development, the researchers concluded.
Subjective v objective feedback
The most useful kind of feedback is detailed and highlights your achievements as well as the areas that need improvement. Employers also need to provide advice about how their staff can develop their skills and overcome weaknesses too.
However, when critical feedback becomes too subjective, it stops being helpful. In 2017, a series of studies by behavioural and data scientist Dr Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio found that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback, rather than positive feedback or critical objective feedback.
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The problem with this is that subjective feedback is based on personal feelings, tastes or opinions – and not necessarily facts. Because of this, Cecchi-Dimeglio found that subjective feedback is often unfairly negative towards women. For example, when a male and female employee were given feedback about a lack of confidence, the comments were very different.
The feedback given to the female employee stated: “Heidi seems to shrink when she’s around others, and especially around clients, she needs to be more self-confident.” Yet the male employee was told to “develop his natural ability to work with people.”
How to give fair feedback
When giving feedback, it’s good to be specific and use concrete examples. It’s important to give both positive and negative feedback so the individual can continue doing well – and work on the things they struggle with.
Offer tangible advice on how they can improve and develop. Making the review positive and helpful can help stop someone feeling like they are being unfairly criticised.
Start with the positives and make sure any praise is sincere. When giving feedback, it’s important to be factual and objective and don’t be judgemental. If they’ve made a mistake, try to be constructive about how they could improve. Perhaps most importantly, make sure the feedback you give is useful to the individual – and something they can take away and use for self-development.