Feedback for women: Style vs Substance

by | Jul 24, 2018

Why feedback for women still suffers unconscious bias

Feedback for women tends to focus on style and personal perceptions, rather than substance and impact. Why is this and what can we do to change it?

Annual performance reviews are coming under the microscope generally, but women in particular pull the short straw. Women tend to receive critical feedback, rather than positive feedback or even critical objective feedback. Feedback for women also tends to focus on the style of their presence or performance, rather than the substance of the content.

feedback for women

Annual assessments are usually subjective. They are based on personal perceptions of those involved in the process. This can be the person's boss, although some companies use wider measures such as peer content or even the views of direct reports. It means that feedback for all, not just feedback for women, is potentially laden and distorted by bias. This becomes more nuanced because of the way we view acceptable male and female behaviour and characteristics in the workplace.

Male-coded feedback for women

Studies show that certain behaviours which are viewed as being positive in a man get a negative spin when applied to a woman. David G. Smith, Judith E. Rosenstein,  Margaret C. Nikolov published research in HBR on the different words we use to describe male and female leaders. They highlight these differences:

Certain attributes associated with leadership, that is behaviours which are considered to generate success, are usually male coded and more typically assigned to men. The study suggests that "The most commonly used positive term to describe men was analytical, while for women it was compassionate. At the other extreme, the most commonly used negative term to describe men was arrogant. For women, it was inept. We found statistically significant gender differences in how often these terms (and others) were used (relative to the other positive or negative terms available for selection) when describing men and women — even though men’s and women’s performances were the same by more objective measures."

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Imprecise feedback

Research from Stanford University, Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard, indicates that feedback for women is less precise and specific than the feedback given to men. A woman's performance is also likely to be rated on non-content issues such as working shorter hours or the style of their performance (aggressive, shrill, abrasive, emotional etc.). Very often women do not receive credit for their work, so large chunks of their job responsibilities are unacknowledged.

We have to find a way to overcome the bias in performance evaluations and the way feedback for women is delivered. We can do this by switching from the annual performance review to an ongoing appraisal system. It could also be linked to employee engagement monitoring. The connection between strong leaders, effective managers and motivated teams is strong.

Giving feedback on an ongoing basis protects the "female" style of leadership identified as being collaborative and participative. This will ensure that it is not lost to the male coded style of producing results, especially under pressure.

  • Women will receive objective feedback in real-time rather than an annual appraisal frequently based on biased or inaccurate hindsight. This reduces the tendency to give women style or personality based appraisals, which are not constructive.
  • They are able to see which team members are engaged or not.
  • They would have an immediate opportunity to adjust their performances in response to comments.

Corporate action

Companies need to take steps to:

  • Introduce a new style of performance evaluation based on transparency and participation, rather than the overview of one boss. There are multiple apps on the market to facilitate this.
  • Give all staff unconscious bias training to create a bias conscious and open-minded culture, so that evaluations have real-time meaning.
  • Tie performance assessment into employee engagement systems.

In the meantime until such more inclusive appraisal systems become the norm, women need to start challenging the nature of the feedback they receive by traditional methods. "I hear what you say about your experience as my tendency to be aggressive. What is your view of my strategy for the new product launch..."

As things stand leadership is still perceived as a male coded activity. Our performance evaluation systems are rigged to favour skills and styles associated with men. Feedback for women currently contains subtle biases which convey the message that women do not have the same leadership potential as their male colleagues.

Make sure your company is doing everything it can to tackle unconscious bias. 3Plus offers Unconscious Bias Training Workshops. Find out more HERE.

If you feel passionate about gender balance and topical issues impacting women in the workplace 3Plus would be delighted to publish your work. Don't wait - send it in

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