Are you giving sexist feedback? Here’s how to do better

Jun 03, 2021

5 mins

Are you giving sexist feedback? Here’s how to do better
Berta Gómez

Periodista freelance

More and more women are achieving positions of responsibility in business. Yet there are still barriers that prevent them from advancing in the same way as their male counterparts. Beyond imposing gender quotas, which set minimum levels of female participation, solving this issue is complicated because it is not a question of explicit misogyny. Sexist attitudes are ingrained at work, meaning that they are more difficult to remove. For example, the feedback that women receive from their superiors tends to be less practical than that given to their male colleagues, which hinders their professional development. Silvia Adriasola, an executive and gender coach, explains the reasons for this bias and offers advice on how to counter it.

If we want to prevent gender inequality in a company, it is necessary to review how each link in the chain works. The best way to do this is to collect data and talk to the staff. Using this methodology, a study carried out by researchers Elena Doldor, Madeleine Wyatt, and Jo Silvester, published in the journal ScienceDirect, shows that the feedback managers give to their teams varies based on gender.

Why is the feedback that women get discriminatory?

The results of this study, obtained after analyzing more than 1,000 comments given to male and female staff in meetings with their superiors, show that even when there is no discriminatory intent, companies offer their female employees less useful and actionable comments about their work than they give to their male staff, thus directly or indirectly shifting the emphasis in their career path away from leadership positions.

Feedback that does not help professional development

Adriasola acknowledges that those in positions of responsibility “do not usually offer women constructive feedback, oriented to strengthening and improving performance”. Women are encouraged to focus on operational tasks, to work as a team, and to be responsible for keeping team spirits up. A striking example relates to confidence. If a lack of self-confidence comes to light in a meeting, it is likely that the manager will see it as simply a female trait rather than something that can be changed or improved.

On the other hand, men receive feedback focused on strategic thinking, developing an overall vision, establishing alliances with those holding power within the company, and claiming their own space to become indispensable. Furthermore, in contrast to what happens with women, men are constantly encouraged to be more self-assured: for them there is always room to improve.

Women are encouraged to focus on operational tasks, to work as a team, and to be responsible for keeping team spirits up…Men, on the other hand, receive ‘feedback’ focused on strategic thinking, and developing an overall vision.

Comments given to women center on personality traits

Another study carried out by Kieran Snyder, a linguist, and chief executive of the Textio app, in which she gathered testimonies from 248 employees (141 from men and 107 from women), showed that women receive more negative comments and that those comments refer to their personality––90% of women had received some type of criticism, compared to 59% of men. Only female staff had been given such comments as “Your colleagues feel that you don’t give them space” or “Sometimes it is necessary to take a step back.”

In an article in Fortune magazine discussing the study, Snyder offers an anecdote. An engineering manager was preparing his team’s evaluations and there were two people he wanted to promote. Of the woman, although he mentioned that she had “a lot of talent”, he also criticized her for being “too impetuous”. Why was being passionate and not shy seen as a flaw? The male employee was also smart and talented, but it was hard not to notice that the main comment about him was less negative: “He needs to learn to be a little more patient, but who doesn’t?”

For Adriasola, these differences when giving feedback are produced by “gender-biased communication, which transmits a stereotypical and unconscious vision of the roles expected of women and men”. She also said stereotyping continues to color the general view of women in leadership positions: “If they are assertive but helpful, they are too soft to lead. If they are firm and direct, they are cold and not very empathetic,” she said.

Stereotyping continues to color the general view of women in leadership positions: “If they are assertive and helpful, they are too soft to lead. If they are firm and direct, they are cold and not very empathetic.”

It’s not just the message: sexism in tone and gestures

According to Adriasola, sexism goes beyond the words used by superiors. “The unequal distribution of power in companies affects language patterns in subtle ways,” she said. She offers an anecdote. A close personal friend told her that, even though women at her company are trusted with responsibilities, the boss speaks to them “in a way that underestimates what they do. He downplays their achievements but, on the other hand, the male staff are bolstered, flattered and praised”.

In other words, sexism when giving feedback can be displayed verbally and non-verbally: The tone used, the associated gestures or the body posture [can] transmit a paternalistic and condescending attitude that weakens and weakens the person it addresses, in addition to not teaching anything about their own improvement,” said Adriasola.

Changing the dynamics: the first step for growth

Although this type of sexism is not carried out deliberately, waiting for things to change along with society is not the solution. A joint action plan that includes the company bosses and the staff needs to be drawn up. It should cover changes in the feedback offered to staff, which will ensure they are not excluded from the prospect of promotion and allow them to actively participate in the corporate culture. Adriasola said: There is usually no clear intention, but rather an internalized and sexist model of thought and behavior. Raising awareness about the impact of stereotypes in our way of perceiving and relating to organizations helps to eliminate biases and allows us to create a culture where it is possible for all genders to learn the language of leadership.”

For this reason, it will also be necessary to change the type of feedback comments given to men. Otherwise, the organization will reproduce a leadership model that is biased against women. Let us remember that the objective is not to standardize the comments given to men and women, but to establish a feedback system that allows all staff at different levels in the organization to work on areas that need improvement and to be able to continue to develop professionally.

The first step towards finding a solution may be to carry out a gender audit to identify any problems faced by employees. The ScienceDirect journal study offers several steps to follow for those wishing to improve the feedback they give:

  1. Strategic thinking: Encourage staff to have a vision of the company at a macro level that goes beyond their own day-to-day responsibilities. Team leaders should encourage them to think strategically about both their tasks and their teams. For men, it is important that they take responsibility for their work, so that the strategic approach does not cause them to neglect day-to-day operations and they can continue to be valuable in their teams, without anyone having to cover their tasks.

  2. Relational skills: It is crucial for women to develop political skills, to create networks, and to learn to negotiate with their peers and their superiors.

  3. Confidence: Giving female staff confidence should be prioritized during the exchange of feedback, but not in an abstract or a vague way. Give them the space to explain where their lack of confidence comes from and talk to the rest of the team to change certain dynamics that may not be constructive. Thus, female staff will avoid feeling singled out as being solely responsible for their lack of leadership skills or self-confidence.

Finally, Adriasola reminds companies that reviewing these dynamics will also have a positive impact on their profitability. “The question that must be asked is: can I afford to exclude almost half of the talent from the improvement, quality, and innovation processes?” she said. “The answer is clearly no.” According to a 2018 study by EAE Business School in Madrid, companies with the highest gender diversity index in their executive teams record 21% more in profits and create 27% more value. But above all, she said, organizations must understand that avoiding discrimination on the basis of gender in any of their processes is a matter of democratic justice: “Putting people at the center means respecting and promoting diversity without leaving anyone behind and that, in itself, is already a great benefit.”

Translated By: Sunita Maharaj-Landaeta

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