All feedback is not equal
In professional services firms, we talk a lot about feedback. We preach that a feedback-driven culture is the answer to improved client outcomes, better interpersonal relationships, and professional growth. Following through on the feedback we receive can make us better employees, colleagues, and leaders. And of course, our ability to make changes based on feedback could determine that next promotion.
But unfortunately, all feedback is not equal. Research suggests that professional feedback shows a strong gender bias based on the recipients’ gender. When men receive actionable feedback, women are more likely to receive vague feedback that is less actionable and less aligned with the traditionally masculine priorities of most firms.
So how can we make sure our feedback is not only useful but equally valuable to all members of the team?
Our words matter. By deliberately considering and reviewing feedback prior to sharing it, we can confirm that our feedback includes actionable steps and aligns with the skills needed most to succeed in our environment. Preparing questions and recommendations ahead of time can help keep conversations on track and our biases in check.
Consider how feedback is provided to all employees, not just women
Reassess how feedback is provided to everyone, regardless of gender. The goal is to help everyone become a better leader, not just to treat women like men.
Although many firms prioritize typically masculine traits, many traditionally feminine traits and skills are also worth nurturing in a professional context. If you frequently ask women to develop as assertive leaders, ask men to develop as collaborative ones. Providing this type of complementary feedback based on existing strengths develops well-rounded leaders and makes space for everyone to demonstrate their growth.
When we focus only on perceived gender differences, we fail to provide individualized feedback that supports all employees. Instead, provide feedback that is specific to the individual employee’s needs and the organization’s values.
Address biases in the four primary areas of developmental feedback
Women and men typically receive differing feedback in four key areas: vision, politics, assertive leadership, and confidence. Over time these differences reinforce gender stereotypes and limit how women are perceived in stereotypically masculine environments. We can close the gap by considering an individual’s existing perspective and adjusting our feedback to match the gaps in their comprehensive development.
Check your own biases when addressing these four key areas of developmental feedback:
Vision is a notoriously ambiguous area and there are multiple hypotheses about why men are consistently viewed as being more visionary. But if vision is part of how you assess leadership, it needs to be accessible to everyone. Before providing feedback regarding vision, define what it means in your organization and identify behaviours or outcomes that demonstrate it. Then, apply the definition and preferred behaviours to all employees.
Vision feedback generally encourages men to be more visionary. Women are often instructed to focus on refining their operational skills or delivering someone else’s vision. Instead, consider asking men to practice their operational skills and help execute someone else’s vision, while encouraging women to create the vision.
Professional feedback often reminds men to network upward and leverage their influence. Women are encouraged to toughen up, play peacekeeper, and network horizontally. Ask men to broaden their horizontal networks and practice tension reduction, while helping women to focus on upward alliances.
Women are often expected to get along and express deference toward leaders. Men are encouraged to take charge and own their rightful place as a leader. When providing feedback, consider asking men to focus on collaboration and identify the value in leaving space for others. Encourage women to be assertive and claim their rightful space.
In the workplace, low confidence in men is frequently met with skill development and confidence improvement strategies. But for women, it is often seen as an inherent, and therefore unchangeable, flaw. When providing feedback, remember that how we view ourselves is fluid. With the right support and actionable instruction everyone can be confident.
Remember, it’s not innate
While generalizing can help us to provide recommendations, it is important to remember that every person is different. In fact, most generalizations about gender differences are rooted in myth. When we perceive women as having traditionally feminine traits, or men as having masculine traits, it is likely because they have been socialized to have those traits. Alternatively, we may be projecting our biases on to them.
This is good news! Since gender differences are not inherent aspects of who we are, they are completely changeable. By questioning the narrative around why employees of different genders behave in typically gendered ways, we can identify how we have encouraged that behaviour and change our patterns to support different outcomes.
When providing feedback, share actionable goals based on desired outcomes rather than gender expectations. We can help our employees to develop new traits and skills that support their career progression, regardless of gender.
Even glass can crack…
Women are increasingly present in lower levels of professional services firms, yet partners are still overwhelmingly men. To drive inclusion at all levels we must address the unconscious gender bias that is integrated into formal and informal feedback cycles.
By training managers, mentors, and project leaders to provide high quality feedback and eliminate vague feedback, we can support women as they climb.
If women are held to the same career progression and promotion standards as men, they must be offered the same opportunities to develop. Providing high quality, actionable, and culturally relevant developmental feedback can help women to better navigate the path toward partner and reduce barriers along the way.
Are you implementing new Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) initiatives but not sure how to share them with stakeholders? Are you ready to report on your ESG activities, including DEI? Read more about our work with ESG reporting or reach out to learn how we can help your company plan for changing ESG needs.
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