To become more effective and fulfilled at work, people need a keen understanding of their impact on others and the extent to which they’re achieving their goals in their working relationships. Direct feedback is the most efficient way for them to gather this information and learn from it. Research and anecdotal evidence point to the fact that underrepresented groups are less likely to receive feedback – and the feedback that is given is more likely to be unconstructive [HBR]

Facts and Data

  • Women are more likely to get vague and unconstructive feedback. Researchers' 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. The analysis also found that developmental feedback for men was more likely to be linked to business outcomes (60% for men versus 40% for women) [HBR]
  • Both men and women are more likely to give women feedback on "personality flaws" rather than developmental feedback. Researchers found that women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback). For example, such feedback might be, “Stephanie, your replies to partners about client matters are often not on point” rather than “Stephanie, you have missed important opportunities to provide clear and concise information, such as X. I have some thoughts on how you could prevent that from happening again, such as Y.” [HBR] One other informal study of 248 personnel reviews found that women are just as likely to give this kind of unconstructive feedback to other women too [Fortune]
  • Unsolicited offers for help undermine confidence and women are more likely to get them. In another experiment, fake teammates told some undergraduate participants who were working on a task, “Let me help you with this. I know this kind of thing can be hard for some girls/guys.” Both male and female participants who were treated in this benevolent manner felt worse about their own ability — they had lower self-efficacy — than participants who were not helped [HBR]
  • Women's communication style is critiqued much more than men's. When women receive specific developmental feedback, it tends 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 [HBR]

From 248 reviews (141 by men / 107 by women) of 180 people (105 men / 75 women) [Fortune]


I had no idea of what I was doing, and it was a nightmare. The line of work I was assigned to was really complicated, and I didn’t think I could last here. The conversations I had with my line manager were very honest — “This is where you’re technically capable, but also this is where you’re not” — and I could then look at the cold facts of the ratio between the two. We had a chat about what support would and wouldn’t be available to help with some of those gaps, how much I’d have to learn and how fast I’d have to learn it, and we compared it to some of the things I’d done previously, and it came out it’d probably work out. It’s really worth having someone say, “You did that really well, your technical work there was great, but you didn’t explain it in a manner that your audience could understand.” Very honest feedback helped me to now have the confidence to know what I can do and try to swim when thrown in at the deep end. ~ Jennita, Process Engineer (source) 

Hear It FirstHand

There was a woman who I supervised who wasn't performing up to the standards I had. I tried to bring this up to her at one point, but she seemed upset by what I had to say. After that I got nervous about giving her feedback because I didn't want to make her feel bad. But she wasn't performing well either and so I was stuck with this situation where I really needed her to improve but I didn't know how to tell her. It wasn't good, and I realize now that even though I was trying not to hurt her feelings, I also was not helping her career. 

Take Action

  • Focus on actions and tie them to business outcomes. When giving feedback, focus on actions rather than personality traits. For example, rather than describing an employee as “helpful,” highlight a specific action: “Focusing the discussion in our weekly meetings on projected results was helpful in aiding us to hit our target for the quarter.” [BCG]

  • Train managers and create a culture of constructive feedback. Companies should train managers in how to develop employees and deliver feedback based on their strengths. The form that most interpersonal feedback takes — a conversation between two people — can trick us into seeing it as a product of the relationship when it’s equally (if not more so) a product of the surrounding culture. Even people who aren’t interested in or skilled at giving or receiving feedback will participate in the process (and improve) when they’re working in a feedback-rich environment. And the most ardent and capable feedback champions will give up if the organizational or team culture doesn’t support their efforts [BCG] [HBR]

  • Avoid "gendered language" that's almost always only used when describing women acting in stereotypically unfeminine ways. Words like bossy, pushy, abrasive, strident, and aggressive are used to describe women’s behaviors when they lead; words like emotional and irrational describe their behaviors when they object. In one study, "abrasive" alone is used 17 times to describe 13 different women. Among these words, only "aggressive" shows up in men's reviews: three times for 105 reviews of men, and two of those times were an exhortation to be more of it [Fortune]

  • When dealing with other's unconstructive feedback, request evidence and ask for comparison. If women are getting critical feedback about their leadership style, simply request evidence that their style has a negative effect on their job or the team. When pushing back against "gendered" language, ask, “Compared to whom?” Rather than claiming the feedback is sexist (which, of course, it might very well be), request a baseline of comparison. This can sometimes nudge the conversation past subjective assessments of “style” toward substantive outcomes [Fast Company]