Women Deserve Explicit Feedback, Too

Posted on April 28, 2023

Woman standing next to a projector screen at the presumed front of a conference room, speaking during a presentation.

Today’s Morning Buzz is brought to you by Melissa Cantarero Weiss, Deputy City Administrator at the City of Wauwatosa, Wis. Find her on LinkedIn or Twitter

Who my pets are: Coco – an almost 2-year-old Aussiedoodle

A hobby I enjoy: Making cloth napkins 

What I’m working on:  Employee evaluations  


We are just wrapping up our employee performance evaluations, so I am spending a lot of time meeting with individuals to discuss their past year, celebrate their successes, and discuss opportunities for growth in the coming months. My favorite part of evaluations is when they give me some feedback. In particular, I like to ask questions like: What can I start doing to help you succeed? What can I stop doing? How can I help you have better work/life balance, and better wellness at work? However, that’s an article for another Morning Buzz. Today we are going to consider gender bias.

A few weeks ago, I presented at the Women’s Empowerment Summit at my alma mater – Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. My session was on bias that women encounter in the workplace, and strategies to overcome it. To help me prepare, I did some reading to expand on my experiences and anecdotes others have shared. You can find two great reads at the end of this article if you want to explore more on this topic. 

One of the important takeaways at the intersection of my presentation and my current work focus was that women experience more bias in performance evaluations than men typically do. Feedback given to women about their work tends to be less actionable and less useful for leadership progression than feedback given to men. When I was speaking at the conference, many women shared that they had received feedback such as, “you should smile more,” “you are shrill,” or “you are too aggressive.” Not specific, not helpful. 

The Harvard Business Review article linked below shared some specific, real-world examples from performance evaluations that show feedback given to male employees versus to female employees on similar topics. One example that really struck me is about confidence. For the male employee, the feedback was, “While a confident person, he will sometimes not express arguments or positions forcefully enough.” For the female employee, the feedback was, “Needs to be a bit more confident and have a bit more self-belief.”

For the male employee, his evaluation shares how to go about demonstrating more confidence – by being more forceful in expressing his position. The evaluation tells the female employee that confidence is a problem, but no specific ideas for how to overcome it. Specific, actionable feedback can help an employee further develop skills that will benefit their career progression. 

So, what to do? One, talk to supervisors in your organization about bias so that they are aware of it. Two, if you receive feedback in an evaluation or meeting that is not specific, ask for feedback that is more concrete. Three, if you are a supervisor, pause before you release your evaluations. Walk away for a day or two and then come back and review them all – compare the evaluations – male versus female, person of color versus white person, senior employee versus junior employee. Does anything stand out to you? Do they have the same amount of specificity? Do you provide women or women of color more vague feedback than male employees receive? Are you bringing to the attention of more junior employees issues that they should address, but allowing a more senior employee to slide on the same? Identify any issues and edit those drafts to correct for bias. Last, do you have employees underneath you that complete evaluations? Review theirs for bias, too. Have them work on a second or third draft if needed.

Implicit bias happens, but it harms people and can have long-term consequences in the workplace. Let’s all take the time to be aware of bias in feedback and performance evaluations and actively work to overcome it. 

A few great reads: 

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