Male, Female Employees Less Receptive to Feedback from Female Bosses, Study Finds
The researcher says employees aren’t ignoring female leaders’ input, they’re just conditioned to expect praise from women.
Both male and female employees are less receptive to performance feedback from a female boss than they are to criticism from a male boss, concludes a new study published as a discussion paper by the IZA Institute of Labor Economics.
“This has important implications for the success of women in leadership,” the paper’s author Martin Abel, a professor of economics at Middlebury College and a research affiliate with IZA, writes in The Conversation. “If using feedback is more likely to backfire for women in positions of power, they may adopt less effective management strategies or become altogether less interested in holding leadership positions.”
The difference in response is rooted in certain expectations workers are conditioned to have of men and women’s management styles; Abel notes in his paper that previous research has found employees are three times more likely to associate praise and appropriate tone with a female supervisor, and criticism and high expectations with a male one. Abel credits the negative response to female managers who critique to the incongruence between experience and expectation.
For the experiment, Abel hired 2,700 workers online for a transcription job. Abel randomly assigned workers to either a fictitious female or fictitious male manager and told the workers the manager would be monitoring their work remotely — an experiment set amid the booming gig economy. Midway through the engagement, the manager offered a randomized selection of workers either positive or negative feedback based on their above- or below-average performance. After, Abel monitored workers’ level of effort, job satisfaction, perception of the job’s importance, and interest in future engagement with the pretend company.
Experiment workers also completed an implicit bias test of traditional gender roles, as well as provided a history of their previous work experience documenting earlier experiences with female managers. He found no evidence that connected negative responses to feedback from female managers with either implicitly sexist beliefs, or with previous inexperience or bad experience with a female manager.
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Overall, workers, both male and female, responded more negatively to feedback when it came from a female manager. They expressed greater dissatisfaction with their jobs after critiques from a female manager. And while workers didn’t ignore criticism from women — they actually spent more time overall mulling the feedback, compared to workers who received criticism from men — following such interaction, workers’ interest in future engagement with the pretend company tanked by double compared to interest in a repeat engagement among workers reviewed by men.
Additionally, Abel found male workers were more dismissive of negative feedback from female managers than they were from identical input from male managers, while female workers’ perceived as equally accurate the feedback from both male and female managers.
In India — where only 10% to 25% of women participate in the formal workforce, and only 24% of those who do make it to the managerial level — the gig economy has been praised as a path to money and power not available to women within traditional work hierarchies. But Abel offers his findings as a word of warning, amid conversations that, to date, have focused mainly on positives — positives that are rapidly breaking down into wishful thinking; his paper comes on the heels of a report finding female freelancers face a wider gender pay gap than women in traditional work structures face.
In The Conversation, Abel cites several examples of ways employers could mitigate this gendered upward bias, one being to spotlight the credentials of women in leadership positions by way of their own positive reviews or reference letters. However, this kind of effort, while well-meant, plays into a larger cultural phenomenon that sees women having to prove their competence at every step in their career, and justify their advancement, while men’s competence is taken at face value — or the value of their title/promotion. Even Abel notes in his paper that, given the findings of his implicit bias test and previous experience test, this “‘discrimination from below’ may not disappear as workers grow more accustomed to (competent) female managers.”
Ultimately, however, Abel concludes on a note of hope: In his experiment, workers responded less and less negatively the younger they were; workers in their 20s, he found, displayed no difference in reaction to feedback from male and female managers.
Liesl Goecker is The Swaddle's managing editor.