Do you dread the words ‘Let me give you some feedback’?

The feedback penalty for women

What’s vague and bias? Feedback for women

Feedback is the backbone of many management tools including having a crucial role in performance management. Many organisations also see it as the tool for improving your performance and preparing you for promotion. But how well does feedback serve women in particular?

Does feedback work for anyone?
Feedback can be problematic whatever our gender. The most comprehensive review of performance feedback was carried out by Denisi and Kluger and dates back to 1996. They found mixed evidence on its value and say that only a third of feedback leads to improved performance, and that is on very simple and specific tasks. Nearly 70% of feedback does nothing or leads to worse performance.

Neuroscience research has found that just saying ‘let me give you some feedback’ creates a threat response in the brain before you even know if the feedback that’s coming is positive or not. Negative or ‘constructive’ feedback impacts the sense of reputation which leads to reduced connection with the group and potentially creates a sense of shame. It impacts certainty; because you no longer know the right work method and being told you are not carrying out the role correctly limits autonomy.

Interesting that something with such a poor record became so important in business.

The negative bias for women
Research at Clayman Institute for Gender Research has examined the effectiveness of feedback for men and women. The work by Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard reveals dramatic differences in the type of feedback received.

They found that nearly 88% of the reviews received by women contained critical feedback, compared with just 59% of the reviews received by men.

And the critical feedback men receive is heavily geared towards suggestions for developing additional skills. For example, “Hone your strategies for guiding your team and developing their skills. It is important to set proper guidance around priorities and to help as needed.”

Compare this with the kinds of constructive feedback that women receive, which include a sharper element, “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”

This kind of negative criticism pointing out things like, watch your tone, step back, stop being so judgmental, showed up twice as much for women than for men.

Men’s feedback points to growth potential
Feedback for women is expressed in more general terms than for men. For example, a man might be described as “achieving goals,” while a woman “gets things done”.

A similar behaviour may be seen as problematic in a woman (“Louise seems to freeze when facing tight deadlines to make decisions”) but as careful thoughtfulness in a man (“Matt seems hesitant in making decisions, yet he is able to work out multiple alternative solutions and consider them thoughtfully”).

The feedback language used for both genders conforms to stereotypical views of men and women. Not only were women given negative feedback for what was perceived as an aggressive communication style (whereas this would be positively framed for a man), they were also found to be “supportive”, “collaborative” and “helpful” more often than men. The language used to describe men was linked more to confidence and independence, and they were twice as likely to receive feedback based on their technical expertise and strategic thinking.

Most importantly, feedback for a man is framed in terms of needing to further develop skills he’s assumed to already have. The criticism of him is wrapped up in an assumed talent: “Matt needs to develop his natural people skills.” There often isn’t the same recognition of growth potential of a woman: “Louise lacks self-confidence: she seems to make herself small when she’s around the client.”

These differences in nuance should not be ignored, say Correll and Simard, because “language is powerful at shaping perceptions.”

Dealing with unfair feedback
If feedback takes you by surprise, it’s not the time to have a difficult discussion challenging it. Take these steps:

Give yourself time to process your emotions and prepare a considered response by saying something like: “That’s extremely disappointing, and not what I was expecting. I’d like some time to consider it properly: can we schedule a meeting when we can discuss it further.”
Proactively identify the areas of your work that you have not received feedback on, which you believe you perform well in (it may be useful to ask a colleague and ally to reflect on this with you), and ask for formal consideration of the areas to be included.
In response to feedback that appears to be gender-stereotyped, ask for clarification in the most open-ended way possible: “Could you clarify for me how ‘being pushy’ is different from ‘being results-driven’?”


Jan Hills

I set up Head Heart + Brain to change the way businesses are managed and led. My consultancy takes the findings from neuroscience and applies them to leadership and business practice. I have a Masters in NeuroLeadership, the application of neuroscience findings to business and leaders. Over the years I have applied science to help leaders to be more effective, I call my approach Brain-savvy

I’m the author of several books including Brain-savvy Wo+man: how women can overcome gender bias and be successful at work, which was written with my daughter, Francesca. We wanted to explore the science behind bias and to give practical help on what women can do to thrive in the workplace despite it. The book is written in two halves and the other end of the book provides career guidance, based on science, for men and women.  You can learn more at