Research: Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back

Although companies have invested heavily in programs to advance women leaders, the number of women in executive roles has not changed significantly in the last decade. Even if women are well represented as middle managers, their numbers drop off when making the jump to VP-level executives. Why are women not rising to executive ranks?

One reason is the feedback men and women receive along the way. Our research shows that women are systematically less likely to receive specific feedback tied to outcomes, both when they receive praise and when the feedback is developmental. In other words, men are offered a clearer picture of what they are doing well and more-specific guidance of what is needed to get to the next level.

When we analyzed a sample of performance evaluations of men and women across three high-tech companies and a professional services firm, we found that women consistently received less feedback tied to business outcomes. The vague feedback lets women know they are generally doing a good job, but it does not identify which specific actions are valued or the positive impact of their accomplishments. We also learned that vague feedback is correlated with lower performance review ratings for women — but not for men. In other words, vague feedback can specifically hold women back.

Our research suggests these trends may result from unconscious bias. Stereotypes about women’s capabilities mean that reviewers are less likely to connect women’s contributions to business outcomes or to acknowledge their technical expertise. Stereotypes about women’s care-giving abilities may cause reviewers to more frequently attribute women’s accomplishments to teamwork rather than team leadership.

Our deeper analysis of over 200 performance reviews within one large technology company showed that reviews for women had vague praise more often than reviews for men (57% and 43%, respectively). Comments such as “You had a great year” populated many women’s reviews. In contrast, our analysis found that developmental feedback for men was more likely to be linked to business outcomes (60% for men versus 40% for women).

Further, when women received specific developmental feedback, it tended to be overly focused on their communication style. While ability to communicate can be an important skill for leaders, it is noteworthy that women received most of the negative feedback about communication styles. Comments such as “Her speaking style and approach can be off-putting to some people at times” point to a manager’s concern but do not offer ways to improve specific behaviors. This kind of feedback was frequently offered in women’s reviews. In fact, 76% of references to being “too aggressive” happened in women’s reviews, versus 24% in men’s.

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