The Give and Take: Making Feedback For Women Fair And Useful

Whether giving or receiving feedback, women may process it differently.

Whether giving or receiving feedback, women may process it differently.

We fill out the feedback forms at conferences, in response to a new initiative, a follow up on a project. If the feedback is anonymous, we might be candid, maybe harsh. With our names attached, we may be more guarded and positive.

But new research shows that if we are hearing or reading the feedback from colleagues, supervisors, bosses and funders, women hear critiques differently than men do.

recent study published in the Harvard Business Review by Margarita Mayo, Professor of Leadership at IE Business School in Madrid, shows “women more quickly aligned their self-awareness with peer feedback, whereas men continued to rationalize and inflate their self-image over time. After six months, women perfectly aligned their views of leadership with their peers’ assessment,” according to Inc.

“In contrast, men continued to inflate their leadership qualities. For example, for self-confidence the pattern was quite different for men than it was for women. These results suggest that women close the gap between self-perception and peer feedback faster than men, demonstrating greater sensitivity to social cues,” writes Jason Bariso.

Yes, the study was small and included 169 men and only 52 women. The conclusion is that for men and women, “Maintaining a positive view in the midst of negativity can give leaders the courage and fortitude they need to move forward,” Bariso writes.

Mayo writes in HBR: “Could women’s greater sensitivity to their peers’ feedback be an advantage in gaining positions of leadership? Women’s alignment of their self-image to reflect what others think of them increases self-awareness, which is the first step for learning. Thus, women should be motivated to seek out training and advice to develop their leadership competences and improve their chances of promotion.”

It’s not just about what women hear in feedback, but about the language used in offering feedback

It is not just about what women hear in feedback and reviews, but about the language used in offering feedback to women, according to recent research from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research. According to Shana Lebowitz in Business Insider,the results show:

  • Women’s evaluations contain nearly twice as much language about their communal or nurturing style — e.g., “helpful” or “dedicated.”

  • Managers are nearly seven times more likely to tell their male employees that their communication style is too soft. Women, on the other hand, receive 2.5 times as much feedback related to their aggressive communication style.

  • Men are more than three times more likely to hear feedback related to a general business outcome.

  • Women’s evaluations contain 2.39 times the amount of references to team accomplishments, as opposed to individual ones.

  • Men hear nearly twice as many references to their technical expertise and their vision.

Another study explained in Harvard Business Review from Kerry Jones at Fractl, shows that with or without feedback, women are less likely than men to ask for a raise.

“Across all racial backgrounds, the men were more likely to have asked for a raise than women, although Asian-American men were not far ahead of the average for all women. Nearly the same percentage of white, Hispanic or Latina, and black women have asked for raises,” Jones writes.

While race plays a role in both men and women seeking a salary increase, gender is the biggest factor. “More than a third of female respondents believe they’ve been passed up for a raise on account of their gender or race. Perhaps women feel they are less likely to be rejected if the person across the negotiation table looks like them. While white women were most likely to think their gender played a role in a denied raise request, non-white women were more likely to  believe a raise was denied due to their race or a combination of factors,” Jones writes.

While race plays a role in both men and women seeking a salary increase, gender is the biggest factor.

But more research, most recently from the Cass Business School, the University of Warwick and the University of Wisconsin “shows that women ask for wage rises just as often as men, but men are 25 per cent more likely to get a raise when they ask,” according to Newswise.

In the study of 4,600 employees seeking raises, co-author Andrew Oswald, Professor of Economics and Behavioral Science at the University of Warwick said: “Having seen these findings, I think we have to accept that there is some element of pure discrimination against women.”

One of the most challenging industries for pay disparities by gender is tech, so asking for a raise as a woman in tech may be even tougher. According to Tech Republic, “A recent Comparably survey of 10,000 employees in the tech industry examined the gender pay gap in tech, and found that women earn less than men in nearly every tech job category, including finance, engineering, design, and IT.”

Alison DeNisco writes, “The gender pay gap is worst for women age 18-25: A woman’s median salary in that age range is $66,000, compared to $85,000 for a man’s, representing 29 percent less pay.”

DeNisco writes: “’Women who assertively negotiate for themselves are able to garner better outcomes, but it comes at a social cost—they are seen as less attractive, less worthy of hire, and overall in a negative light,’ said Emily Amanatullah, research fellow at Georgetown University’s Women’s Leadership Institute. This is called the backlash effect, in which women who engage in stereotypically masculine behaviors are socially punished for doing so, she said.”

Perhaps the most disturbing results on how women are criticized and perceived comes from new research that says you have the best chances of being a successful leader if you have blonde hair.

Minda Getlin writes in Inc. about the research by Jennifer Berdahl and Natalya Alonso, professors at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business. “Only 2 percent of the world’s population has naturally blond hair. If you narrow your sample to white people in the United States, that percentage goes up, but only to 5 percent. But look at women in leadership positions and you’ll see a lot of golden tresses. More than a third of female senators–35 percent–are blonde. And though the sample size for female CEOs of S&P 500 companies is admittedly small, 48 percent–nearly half–are blonde.”

The blonde preference does not translate for male leaders, the research shows. But women leaders who are blonde are preferred, however archaic or absurd that may seem.

Research shows women leaders who are blonde are preferred, however archaic or absurd that may seem.

“Women in positions of great authority are often caught in a bind. If they adopt a stereotypically female style–friendly, conciliatory, and non-confrontational–they aren’t seen as unfeminine, but they aren’t respected as strong leaders either. If they adopt a more stereotypically male stance, being forceful and authoritative, they may be respected, but they risk being labeled as bitches or ball busters,” Getlin writes.

“Every effective leader needs to be forceful and authoritative, though, at least some of the time. And it turns out that women in leadership positions who behave that way can blunt some of the criticism by sporting blonde hair, which signals that they’re really soft, friendly, and not-so-smart underneath, even as they issue commands,” Getlin writes.

Giving or receiving feedback for women and men, it seems as if women leaders are judged on a different scale than are men. If you are on the giving end of feedback, Culture Amp has suggestions on how to make it most effective. “We want to ensure the feedback we provide to coworkers is useful, and we don’t cause long-term upset,” Alexis Croswell writes.

Croswell suggests being mindful of timing, specificity, preparation and actionable items.

“When positive feedback is given often, it prevents occasional critical or corrective feedback from becoming an ordeal. Culture Amp Insights Strategist Jennifer Cullen adds that giving feedback regularly and explaining why you are doing so shows people that you care about them personally. She says, ‘When you offer up constructive feedback then, those people are more receptive to hearing you because they are more inclined to feel that you are genuinely trying to help them.’”

About the Author

Michele Weldon is editorial director of Take The Lead, an award-winning author, journalist, emerita faculty in journalism at Northwestern University and a senior leader with The OpEd Project. @micheleweldon