Feedback and Gender: Research Insight

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Biases against women are interwoven into nearly all sectors of life and, therefore, also appear in the feedback research. Patriarchal norms and biases are built into many of our systems—from the businesses we work for to the religions we practice. They run deep, even showing up, for example, in female-dominated workplaces.

So, while it shouldn’t be surprising, feedback research highlights some important links between feedback and gender. Let’s take a look.

The feedback women receive

Most of the feedback research on this topic examines the quality and quantity of the feedback women receive. Here’s a small sampling of what it reveals:

“Women are 20% less likely to receive actionable feedback that can contribute to their performance and growth at work.”

“Black women are nine times more likely to receive non-actionable feedback at work.”

“The bad news is that women who negotiate are disproportionately penalized for it. They are 30 percent more likely than men who negotiate to receive feedback that they are ‘intimidating,’ ‘too aggressive,’ or ‘bossy’ and 67 percent more likely than women who don’t negotiate to receive the same negative feedback.”

“Past research has shown that women are more likely to receive inflated feedback, and less likely to receive actionable feedback, than men are.” [full article here]

Lastly, and though it may seem obvious, providing negative feedback that touches explicitly on gender stereotypes decreases performance and isn’t good for anybody.

“All female students exposed to stereotype threat state the reason for their poor performance was the feedback from faculty members. These preliminary results reveal the impact that feedback from faculty members can have on their students. Here, it reinforces the need to avoid negative feedback that includes gender-based comments in feedback to students. The negative aspects of stereotype threat can be alleviated by wise feedback.” [See below for more on wise feedback]

The feedback women give

There’s plenty of room for research in this area, but based on the quotes above, you can likely make some correct extrapolations.

This 2020 study in the American Sociological Review, for example, found that women are far more likely to be described as aggressive.

“For example, men and women are equally likely to be described as having technical ability, while women are viewed as too aggressive and men as too soft.”

Here, you can see an example of how patriarchy negatively impacts men as well.

Additionally, in describing this study at Harvard Business Review, INSEAD professor Erin Meyer makes a great point:

“That’s why women who provide candid feedback risk being perceived as on the attack.”

Put another way, the ripple effect of these biases extends into all parts of the feedback relationship—including how women are perceived as feedback givers.

Another study, this one in Management Communication Quarterly, found that female managers generally took a more collaborative approach when giving performance feedback. The feedback was more conversational, with the level of directness growing alongside the relationship.

Based on my experience and review of the feedback research, this approach is more effective than the more unilateral and immediately direct approach offered by men. Indeed, the study found that both male and female managers identified this approach to giving feedback as more effective. They also found:

“That men in turn were able to recognize the female strategy as generally more effective than their own perhaps reflects their increasing awareness that the contemporary managerial role should emphasize collaborative and participative behaviors.”


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