Unconscious bias see women getting different feedback at work to men | #BreakTheBias Series

Not all feedback is created equal. A new study reveals how unconscious bias seeps into the feedback that women get from managers at work. For our first #BreakTheBias series article, we’re jumping right into unravelling this trend.

The study conducted out of the UK shows that women are more likely to receive less practical, actionable and quantitative feedback than men — even when the feedback itself is largely positive. Based on 1,000 pieces of written feedback, researchers digitally analysed the ways in which biases and subtleties existed in the feedback given to men and women, and developed four key points to consider to make feedback more meaningful for all staff.

For women, the bias in feedback they received leans towards a focus on delivering work instead versus strategising, coping with politics versus leveraging them, collaborating versus assertiveness, as well as differences around confidence expressions. Alongside the feedback subjects themselves showing bias, the report also shows that the delivery of feedback was flavoured with biased language and insinuations.

“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, Elena Doldor, Madeleine Wyatt, Jo Silvester”

We know how performance reviews are key to addressing gender pay gaps. This research is a welcome addition in helping workplaces untangle the sometimes less tangible side of performance reviews. To help, the researches have spotlighted four key tangible steps for managers to focus on inorder to stamp out biases, reframe their feedback and ultimately contribute to a more equitable feedback style:

  • Holding space for women to conceptualise + strategise

Women are often pigeonholed into execution and delivery-based work — and get the feedback to boot. Researchers here suggest managers open up their feedback sessions to share strategy-based ideas and verbalise their own vision for the team.

  • Exploring the politics of the workplace

We all know how networking and influencing others in the organisation is key to good leadership. Carving out space for these exact conversations is key to ensuring feedback sessions are productive, prosperous and where biases are mitigated. Pulse-checking workplace politics, exploring constructive ways of engaging in politics, and identifying whose support might be needed to advance in your team’s leadership goals — they’re all encouraged in feedback sessions. Here, managers might also get insight to the more subtle, subjective and nuanced experiences of members in their teams.

  • Asserting leadership vs working with others

The entrenched encouragement of men to be assertive and women to focus on ‘getting along with others’ spills out beyond the feedback session: with women being directed to more collaborative projects and men forging ahead to taking on leadership roles.

Conversations can change this: researchers suggest managers invite women to be explicit about their leadership aspirations — while simultaneously considering how to pursue development opportunities.

  • The difference between being skill-confident and showing more confidence

Men were found to be told they needed to develop confidence for specific skills. As for women, the advice was more generic: to “become more self-confident” without concrete guidance around how to do that. This is an important difference to mitigate — considering that past research has shown decision makers tend to cite ‘lack of confidence’ as a justification for women’s slower progress.

“Luckily, understanding this subtle gender bias is the first step towards correcting it Elena Doldor, Madeleine Wyatt, Jo Silvester

Luckily, understanding this subtle gender bias is the first step towards correcting it,” share the reporters. And what better time is there to start interrogating your performance review sessions to #BreakTheBias than now?

Read more about this research in Women’s Agenda and Harvard Business Review