In election years (as well as most other years), there’s often a lot of talk about the gender gap in both salaries and promotions to top positions in all work settings. But there’s another related issue that doesn’t get press—a gender gap in feedback that could affect our success paths in the workplace.
Women often don’t take feedback from other women positively—even if the feedback is meant to be positive. Last April, at a Women in the World Summit sponsored by The New York Times, PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi pointed out, “We assume feedback from women [always] means something is wrong, but if that same feedback came from men, we’re more willing to accept it … we sometimes don’t give feedback to women the way we should.”
Such feedback insecurity could hold us back. But women leaders can adopt better feedback approaches to foster innovative thinking and boost confidence.
Why Feedback Is Critical
Women have a particular need for honest feedback, especially in men-centric careers where we need strong role models and proactive networks, says Wendy Murphy in Harvard Business Review.
Flimsy feedback creates a vicious cycle: When women in charge don’t specify feedback to women they manage, those women won’t have a solid idea of what they do well and what they need to improve. Thus, their future efforts tend to stay on the same level and pace, which can lead to stalled careers and a sense of stagnation. Likewise, without the right dose of actionable feedback, you could end up with underperformers on your own teams.
Does Gender Factor In?
It might not always be obvious when you receive feedback from a superior, or give feedback to your female subordinates, that the feedback you’re giving or getting is vague or unclear. Think about it: vague feedback lets you know you’re generally doing a good job, but it doesn’t identify specific actions as either well done or needing improvement.
Recent research from HRB shows that women are less likely to receive specific feedback — which ties into lower performance review ratings and career outcomes for women.
Results from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research published in Fortune also support this. They found:
- Women in charge feel it’s harder to give feedback to other women, whether good or bad, than it is to give to men.
- Women are often concerned their feedback could be misconstrued by female co-workers.
- Many women feel they misconstrue feedback when they receive it from other women.
- Managers of both genders are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong.
- Women’s accomplishments are more likely than men’s to be seen as the result of a team, rather than an individual effort.
Bosses of both genders might expect us to be more team-oriented than men, and thus less independent. So we may be more likely to be shunted into support roles rather than landing the core positions that lead to executive jobs, researchers add.
Clear Feedback Makes a Difference
We could be unconsciously internalizing stereotypes that can drain confidence in ourselves and in our female co-workers. But there are ways to make it easier to provide actionable feedback.
Jessi Lynn Stoner of the Seapoint Center for Collaborative Leadership advises women to keep a few points in mind when giving pointed feedback to other women:
- Go heavy on description, not opinion. When you describe something without opining on it, it enables people who receive feedback to come to their own conclusions. Even when someone does something well, it’s much more helpful to be descriptive about what they did than to simply say they were “great.” Tell them what they did that was so great, so they know what to repeat.
- Base feedback on your own concerns. Don’t speak for others, and don’t share what you heard or observed from others unless you’re authorized to do so. The only thing you know for sure are your own reactions, and feedback is most effective when you focus on that.
- Consider what the recipient needs. Are you giving feedback that someone can actually use? Or that will benefit them in some way? Feedback can be destructive when it serves only your needs. If you’re only giving feedback to make yourself feel better, think twice about it.
- Find out if your feedback was clearly understood. Feedback isn’t always heard the way it was intended. One way to be sure is to ask the recipient to rephrase what they heard from you. People appreciate this because it shows you’re concerned about what they take away from the feedback.
How do you give feedback? Share your tips in the comments section.