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Why Managers Are Kinder to Women in Workplace Reviews

Here’s why that’s a problem

Published: Wednesday, March 22, 2023 - 11:01

Women are more likely than men to receive positive feedback from their managers. But an overly enthusiastic performance review is not necessarily a good thing. Prior research shows female employees are often told white lies while their male equivalents are dealt the harsh, honest truth.

This is problematic because inaccurate, inflated feedback can hurt a woman’s ability to receive important job assignments, raises, or promotions.

But why are women reviewed differently? Do managers think female employees can’t handle the truth? Is hostile or benevolent sexism at play?

We set out to investigate what drives gender bias in workplace reviews and found that managers aim to be kinder to women because of the gender stereotype that women are warmer and “nicer” than men.

In a recent paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin and summarized in Harvard Business Review, we theorize that people make kindness a higher priority when giving feedback to a woman vs. a man due to the association of women with warmth. This can in turn motivate them to exhibit greater positivity.

Kindness and candor can go hand in hand

We tested our argument that warmth drives gendered positivity biases in two ways: directly by assessing perceptions of warmth, and indirectly by testing whether people see kindness as more helpful for women.

We first checked for real-world evidence of this in the evaluations of high-performing MBA students. A sample of 423 students nominated supervisors, mentors, peers, and subordinates to offer feedback on their performance.

We asked evaluators to consider how kind and candid their responses were and checked if they were aware of how positive their feedback was. Evaluators indicated that they prioritized kindness more in feedback to women, but there was no significant difference in the priority placed on candor.

While evaluators did not self-report giving more positive feedback to women than men, analysis of their qualitative answers revealed that their comments to women had a more positive tone, included a higher percentage of words associated with positive emotions, and included a lower percentage of words associated with negative emotions.

We then took an experimental approach and conducted multiple studies to test whether MBA students, experiment participants, and managers would prioritize kindness more when anticipating giving developmental feedback to a woman vs. a man.

Participants were asked what their top priorities were in a hypothetical scenario where they had to give feedback to an underperforming employee whose name implied their gender (they were either called “Andrew” or “Sarah”). As predicted, participants prioritized kindness significantly more for Sarah than for Andrew. Further, we found that both male and female evaluators exhibited this differential tendency to an equal degree. Put simply, whether the participant was a man or a woman had no influence on how they rated Sarah or Andrew.

Is sexism at play?

Interestingly, participants prioritized candor when it came to giving feedback to both Sarah and Andrew about their performance. This indicates that hostile sexism, in that evaluators have hostile intentions and don’t want women to succeed, is not driving this effect.

Alongside hostile sexism, we tested other possible mechanisms. These included stereotypes that women are less competent, benevolent sexist instincts that women need protection, lower standards of judgment among women compared to men, concerns about appearing prejudiced, and stereotypes about men being more disagreeable.

To investigate these alternative drivers, participants rated how much they saw the employee as competent, how strongly they believed women should be cherished and protected by men, how surprised they were by the poor performance, and how comfortable they felt about giving the feedback. In addition, they were asked how the feedback might be received, how concerned they were that the employee would disagree, and how they thought the employee would feel after the feedback.

None of these gender condition differences emerged from the results. Participants were simply motivated to be kinder to women because of the stereotype that women are warmer.

Nevertheless, future research should address questions about how intersections of race and gender shape feedback, and also explore intersectional and gender-nonbinary dynamics. For example, evaluators may prioritize kindness and at the same time not want to appear racist, transphobic, or simply a bigot, which could exacerbate biases.

Who “wins” at the end of the day?

In our final study, we measured warmth indirectly by asking real-world managers how helpful they see kind feedback as being. Consistent with the earlier studies, we found that people rated kind feedback as more helpful for Sarah than Andrew, and candor as equally helpful for them both.

These findings raise important questions about who loses—and how—when managers prioritize kindness toward women, especially if honesty is equally prioritized. If greater kindness and positivity toward women shrouds the candor of the feedback, it may inhibit women’s ability to learn and predict their future outcomes.

However, harsher feedback to men may foster cultures that reduce men’s dedication and well-being at work. This could potentially contribute to fostering cultures of toxic masculinity that are constraints to all genders.

Our results indicate that managers need to reflect on what they prioritize when giving feedback and how this is shaped by the recipient’s gender.

At the end of the day, kind feedback is not the issue. All employees could benefit from a little positivity and enthusiasm. The problem arises when managers assume kindness is necessary based on an employee’s gender alone. Managers may need to work on providing positive feedback across the board, or to keep kindness in check when reviewing female employees. There’s benefit in going in both directions or finding a happy medium.

Leaders need to find ways to operationalize kindness in workplace reviews and turn the power of positivity into something that’s helpful for all. Only then can we begin to achieve the broader social goal of gender equity in the workplace.

This article was first published on Feb. 14, 2023, by INSEAD.


About The Authors

Lily Jampol’s picture

Lily Jampol

Lily Jampol is a scientist and author. As well as contributing to INSEAD, she is a partner at ReadySet and a DEI strategist. 

Elizabeth Baily Wolf’s picture

Elizabeth Baily Wolf

Elizabeth Baily Wolf is an assistant professor at INSEAD. Her expertise is in human behavior within the workplace. Her research has been published in several academic journals and received attention from media such as Bloomberg, NPR, and Harvard Business Review. 

Aneeta Rattan’s picture

Aneeta Rattan

Aneeta Rattan covers diversity in the workplace, focusing specifically on inequity and prejudice within organizations. Her research has been published by the Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and many others. Readers can also find her work in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and HuffPost.