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Society of Women Engineers

How Women Get Biased Feedback at Work

I hear stories about unfair and unhelpful criticism from my female co-workers often, and research backs up these anecdotes.

Published On: April 2018

This article by Steph Mitesser is from the Smarter Living Newsletter on NYTimes.com.

Recently, a female colleague shared a frustrating experience with me: A male tech lead told her the engineers (who are mostly male) were afraid to talk to her because she’s an attractive woman; they called her “unapproachable.” She was speechless and had no idea how to address his concerns.

I hear stories about unfair and unhelpful criticism from my female co-workers often, and research backs up these anecdotes: In one study across 28 companies, 76 percent of critical feedback given to women included comments on her personality — e.g., a woman was “abrasive” — while only 2 percent of negative reviews for men included such comments.

These experiences don’t just frustrate women, they keep them from reaching their full potential. And when we give women advice for dealing with this problem, it burdens them to fix something that isn’t their fault and diverts time and energy from their work.

Three Steps to Avoid Giving Biased Feedback

Frankly, it’s more efficient just to give women (and everyone!) better feedback in the first place. You may never completely erase gender bias from your critiques, but being more thoughtful, objective and specific will help a lot.

Use the Right Criteria

Before commenting on your colleague’s work, make sure you understand the most important skills for her job. If you don’t know, ask her manager. Otherwise, you’ll probably fill this gap with more subjective (and more biased) critiques.

Appropriate criteria helps you avoid personality judgments, which reflect your personal preferences rather than the job requirements. We naturally gravitate toward certain personalities at work, but it’s nearly impossible to tie subjective traits like “approachability” or “humor” to job performance. If you can’t give specific examples of how the trait affected her work, leave it out. Similarly, give examples for how she can act on your feedback; otherwise, you likely won’t help her improve.

Take the Time to Vet Your Criticisms

Katie Stricker, a career coach, recommends asking these questions before sharing feedback:

  1. How does this apply to the work she’s meant to do or the product she’s supposed to deliver?
  2. How would I apply this feedback to anyone in the company?

You can also talk through your critique with another colleague to get her perspective, as long as you frame the conversation about professional development and not gossip.

You Don’t Need to Just Criticize

“We tend to associate ‘feedback’ with ‘negative feedback.’ But feedback should really be continuous and include both positives and negatives,” Ms. Stricker said. “If we make feedback more organic, frequent and well rounded, it becomes a bit less loaded for everyone.”

While criticism should be thoughtful and measured, don’t let anxiety about biases prevent you from giving regular feedback. In the wake of #MeToo, men have expressed to me that fear of saying something sexist leads them to say nothing. Silence won’t help anyone grow. But by making good-faith efforts to reduce bias from your feedback and to have open and honest conversations with your co-workers, your feedback is much more likely to be well received.

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