A 'very, very fine line': How the gender 'double bind' affects workplace feedback & 3 strategies to stop it

Women have long juggled contradictory expectations. Being too nice means women aren't taken seriously, and being too assertive means they are labeled difficult. Research shows this double bind prevents women from receiving the candid feedback they need to advance in the workplace.

What is the double bind? As former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., described it to NPR in 2016, "It is the really very, very fine line of being a shrew on one hand and a puppet on the other that any woman in public life has to walk." Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina described it more bluntly in her memoir Tough Choices: "In the chat rooms around Silicon Valley, from the time I arrived until long after I left HP, I was routinely referred to as either a 'bimbo' or a 'bitch' — too soft or too hard, and presumptuous, besides."

Four notes on how the gender double bind affects feedback in the workplace:

1. Women want more — and better — feedback. A 2015 PwC survey of millennials showed that just 12 percent of millennial women were satisfied with the depth and frequency of the feedback they received at work. Millennial women most often wanted feedback continuously or frequently, or at the end of projects.

2. Women are not receiving direct, critical feedback as frequently as men, despite asking for it at similar rates, according to a 2016 study conducted by Lean In and McKinsey. Although managers involved in the study believed they were doling out feedback equally, their responses suggest the feedback given to women may be less direct. Managers were more likely to cite concerns about seeming mean or prompting an emotional breakdown when delivering feedback to women.

3. Another 2016 study, published in Harvard Business Review, posits that this lack of candor could be holding women back in the workplace. The study showed 57 percent of women received vague praise in performance reviews, compared to 43 percent of men, and just 40 percent of women received feedback that linked to business outcomes, compared to 60 percent of men. Women were more likely to receive feedback on communication styles, while men received feedback on technical skills. Women were also more likely to receive feedback that they were "too aggressive." Concrete, actionable feedback makes it easier to identify success and areas for improvement that can lead to career development and advancement.

4. Similarly, women face biases when giving feedback. A 2019 study published by the Institute of Labor Economics found workers' job satisfaction dropped 70 percent more when female managers delivered critical feedback than when male managers did. And, after receiving criticism from a female manager, twice as many workers lost interest in working for the company in the future. The drop in satisfaction applied to workers of both genders, but male workers were more likely to believe their female managers were less competent after receiving criticism from them, according to the study.

So what can workplaces do to help eliminate biased feedback? Three tips:

Be honest. Feedback expert Kim Scott, a former tech executive, co-founder of Candor Inc., and author of Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity, suggests that the best feedback comes from managers who care about their employees enough to be clear and direct. In an excerpt from her book, Ms. Scott writes: "There are two dimensions to good guidance: Care personally and challenge directly. When you do both at the same time, it's 'radical candor.' It's also useful to be clear about what happens when you fail on one dimension (ruinous empathy), the other (obnoxious aggression) or both (manipulative insincerity). Being clear about what happens when you fail to care personally or challenge directly will help you avoid backsliding into old habits too common to all of us."

Check yourself. Clara Shih, CEO and founder of the tech company Hearsay Systems, shared her process for preventing gendered feedback with The Wall Street Journal. She said, "Write it down, and then ask yourself, would you email this to a white man and have it on the record?"

Document it. Jareen Imam, the director of social newsgathering at NBC News, told Poynter she documents all feedback she receives and gives for accountability. "As a manager, whenever I provide critical feedback, I like to be very specific and afterward I follow up in an email about that conversation with my employee. I found that by documenting my feedback with others, it holds me and my direct reports accountable. And if we have issues in the future, we can go back to these notes for help and guidance," Ms. Imam said in "The Cohort," a newsletter produced by Poynter.

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