Unconscious gender biases see women getting different feedback at work to men

Unconscious gender biases see women getting different feedback at work to men


Getting feedback at work is not free from gender bias. That’s what new research from the UK has found. Professors Elena Doldor, Madeleine Wyatt, and Jo Silvester combined their efforts in a large-scale study, interviewing more than 1,000 people to reveal that in the workplace, there is a concerning disparity in how men and women are given developmental feedback

What did they do?
The study by the team of UK researchers used a form of machine learning known as “topic modelling” alongside comprehensive qualitative analysis to investigate a large range of developmental feedback data. 

They explored gender differences in a set of written feedback for 146 mid-career leaders, offered anonymously by over 1,000 peers and leaders while taking part in a leadership development program.

The researchers asked participants to rate their leaders’ performance numerically, providing a quantitative baseline for comparison that allowed them to control for objective differences in the leaders’ performances.

What did they find?
Based on their analyses, the researchers found four key differences in how advice was framed for female leaders and for male leaders. The research showed that even when the feedback was positive, what was received by women was less actionable and less useful for leadership progression than feedback given to men. 

Which means that it is objectively harder for women to advance into more senior positions. Most messages were positively framed, however good intentions didn’t see the absence of biased language and insinuations when it came to giving feedback.

What do they recommend?

How can gender bias in developmental feedback be corrected? Researchers believe that managers can overcome their biases and provide more equitable feedback by being more aware of how they frame their advice. 

“Managers must scrutinise the messages they communicate in that feedback… and must examine how they provide feedback not just to their female employees, but to their male employees as well,” the researchers wrote. 

Here are some of the areas they recommend employers look at: 

  1. Let women conceptualise and set the terms
    “Too often, women get pigeonholed into delivering, rather than developing vision,” the researchers said in the Harvard Business Review. “To help them move past their areas of technical expertise into broader leadership roles, managers should encourage female employees to think strategically about the wider context in which the organisation operates.” How about inviting female leaders to develop and verbalise their own vision for the team or company? And don’t reduce them to operational details.
    Excellent Conversation Starters:
    “What is your personal vision for the team/organisation?”
    “How does it fit in with the bigger picture?”
    “How can you involve others in developing this vision?”

  2. Negotiating the politics of the workplace
    We all know that networking, negotiating, and influencing others is part of the job of good leadership. But how can we encourage women to deliberately build relationships?
    Excellent Conversation Starters:
    “How do you feel about workplace politics? What might be constructive ways of engaging in politics, in your role?”
    “Who are the key players in your work area/organisation and what are their agendas?”
    “Who do you need to form relationships with and whose support do you need to progress towards your leadership goals? How will you do that?”

  3. Say what you want
    What does it mean to be assertive, and who gets encouraged to express their ambitions? Well, turns out men tend to feel freer to verbalise what they want. Women? Well, we should give women more space to be more “…explicit about their leadership aspirations and proactively pursue development opportunities,” said the researchers. 
    Excellent Conversation Starters: 
    “What are your leadership aspirations?”
    “How will you pursue them? What and who might enable you?”
    “In a year’s time, what steps will you have taken to achieve that leadership role?”
    “How team-oriented and collegiate are you in various work contexts?”
    “In what ways could you develop these skills?”

  4. Be more confident vs. show more confidence 
    The researchers of the study found that men were given more specific advice when it came to displaying confidence (as though we expect them all to inherently be born with it, and women are not) whereas women were given vague advice such as “become more self-confident” without concrete guidance around how to do that. Managers should aim to talk about confidence by being more specific in the domains or skill sets.
    Excellent Conversation Starters
    “What specific skills do you feel less confident about? How can you develop them?”
    “What skills do you feel confident about? How can you better leverage them in your role?”
    “What behaviours can you use to demonstrate your confidence to others?”

We all want to strive to treat people based on the fact of their humanness, not their male-ness or their female-ness. The researchers believe we should encourage leadership practices that “include the best of both traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine traits.” 

“Understanding this subtle gender bias is the first step towards correcting it,” they concluded. “By identifying and refocusing developmental conversations in the four key areas of bias we’ve outlined above, managers can begin to overcome their unconscious biases and more effectively support the development of all of their employees.” 

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