The kindness bias holding women back

New research shows that women get ‘nicer’ feedback than men and that giving different feedback based on gender creates problems for all

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Constructive feedback has long been used as way to provide people with the information necessary to effect change or growth, but giving feedback is not always easy. It can be hard for managers to know how to strike a fair, consistent balance between being candid and considerate. While these worries about kindness and candor almost always arise around feedback giving, new research shows evidence that gender plays a role.

According to new research by Aneeta Rattan, PhD, Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, co-authored with Lily Jampol, PhD, a Partner and Head of People Science and Services at ReadySet, and Elizabeth Baily Wolf, PhD, Assistant Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD, people tend to prioritise kindness more when giving feedback to women compared to when giving the same feedback to men. The stereotype that women are warmer than men appears to be driving this kindness bias as the 1,500+ MBA students, full-time employees, and managers based in the US and UK involved in the studies rated kind feedback as more of a priority, and as more helpful, for women than for men.

Giving different feedback based on gender creates problems, however, as inflated feedback means that women are less likely to receive actionable feedback than men are. As Dr. Rattan and her co-authors write in an article about the research findings for Elizabeth Baily Wolf (HBR), “Inaccurate, unhelpful, or unclear feedback (even when motivated by the desire to be kind) can end up obscuring critical growth opportunities and cause women to be less likely to get important job assignments, raises, or promotions. At the same time, a lack of kindness in feedback given to men may inhibit their growth, harm their wellbeing, and contribute to a workplace culture imbued with toxic gender norms.”

The researchers conclude that kindness and candour are both necessary components of effective feedback and suggest that “managers should make a conscious effort to give feedback that’s both accurate and kind regardless of the gender of the recipient.”

You can find out more about the research findings and Drs Rattan, Jampol, and Wolf’s suggestions for the best way to overcome this kindness bias in the HBR article ‘Women Get “Nicer” Feedback — and It Holds Them Back’ now.