The minefield of feedback for women

by | Oct 17, 2019

How to ensure feedback for women is accurate and consistent

Constructive input is essential for  career development, so let's start encouraging it. So why  is feedback for women so erratic?

Women and feedback are two words which send out alarm signals. A process that is completely routine for their male colleagues, either on a daily and informal basis or more formally, becomes a minefield for their female colleagues. In theory, feedback allows you to take into consideration someone else's experience of something you have done or said. Feedback can include specific critiques and messages from others, both positive and negative. Feedback allows you to adjust your performance, behaviour or strategy in a constructive way. It leads to better outcomes which are career enhancing. It also gives you data from which you can make your own observations and learnings. This can be difficult, especially if we don't have an anchored sense of self, which is derived in part from the input of others. Feedback for women continues to be non-existent, stereotyped or unclear.

Lack of feedback means that you are operating in a vacuum. Misleading, biased or incorrect input can be even more confusing.

feedback for women

Gender gap for women and feedback

Many women I've worked with over the years say repeatedly that the feedback they are given by their managers or colleagues is often misleading or even contradictory. They can't establish what they need to do to put things right. Feedback for women continues to be a maze to be navigated with caution. Deciphering the sub-text, guessing what's missing or trying to match the vocabulary with self-perception or tangible performance is a massive challenge.

A study from The Center for Talent Innovation suggests:

  •  Women are 32% less likely to receive any feedback from male superiors.
  •  81% percent of women say that feedback is so contradictory, they don't know how to respond.

Other studies show that women's self-evaluations are consistently harsher than their bosses' feedback. Women also have a tendency to personalise criticism.

Do you tend to personalise criticism? Try our Returner Roll-Up Session to help you Develop Resilience.

Benevolent sexism

Women frequently receive softer feedback from male bosses and peers because benevolent sexism kicks in. This is a misguided effort to protect the "gentle" feelings of their female direct reports. However, withholding accurate input deprives women of a key channel for constructive input to strengthen their leadership or skill-based capabilities and improve. Men also receive informal insights into their performance on a more frequent basis. This gives them an inbuilt added advantage.

Feedback is a vehicle for facilitating self-improvement. Lack of it can hold women back. To compensate, individual women will have to learn to be direct and ask for specifics and more precise language. This can be challenging.

Frequently they are told: "Just keep on doing what you're doing," which isn't productive. Asking for a detailed breakdown and concrete examples of what that could entail is vital to help improve performance.

Women often receive different styles of feedback compared to their male colleagues, in terms of the language used and the areas specified. One way to address this is by achieving greater objectivity in evaluations. This ensures fairness in the way feedback is given and performance is assessed. Ask for facts and data. Any criteria should be explicit. Crucially evaluation processes should be designed to flag up and limit the influence of decision makers’ conscious and unconscious biases.

What can you look for as an individual manager or HR professional?

  • Do your performance evaluations show consistently higher ratings for men than for women or other groups?
  • Do performance ratings for women shift at certain milestones (when they have had children, taken parental leave or opted for a different work pattern?)
  • Are men promoted more readily than women, and on what basis?    

If you are described as "edgy" or "emotional," or "too much," insist on specific instances, preferably that someone else witnessed.

Women should be clear about which areas of their professional lives require further, or more precise, feedback. They also need to be clear about what they should ignore or let go totally. If you have any doubt, ask for input from multiple sources.

Above all put yourself in a place where you are open and ask for feedback on a regular basis, from both bosses and peers. See what a difference it makes.

Encourage people in your workplace to think about and identify their biases to minimise discrimination with our Unconscious Bias Training Workshops.

Staff Writer: Career Contributor
3Plus welcomes any writers to join 3Plus as a Staff Writer. If you are an expert in Job Search, Career and Mentoring or just want to share your experiences, contact us! We would love to give you a voice!

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