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School of Business and Management

New research on the disparity between male and female developmental feedback featured in Harvard Business Review

Harvard Business Review publishes research from the School of Business and Management about how women leaders receive less actionable feedback than men, and what can be done about it.

businesswoman painting her own career path while businessman being supported by corporate culture

Women’s advancement into senior leadership roles remains much slower than men. Newly published research by Dr Elena Doldor from the Centre for Research in Equality and Diversity sheds light into one of the causes for this ongoing gender inequality. The study explored differences in the developmental feedback received by men and women. Developmental feedback - provided informally or through official management processes - is one of employees’ few explicit opportunities to learn about how they should change and develop as a leader, and as such it plays a major role in paving the way to leadership.

Using computerised text analysis, the authors examined comments provided anonymously to 146 mid-career leaders, by more than 1,000 of peers and leaders while taking part in a leadership development program. They found four key differences in how advice was framed for female leaders and for male leaders:

  • Vision: men were encouraged to focus on ‘the big picture’ and on setting a vision; women were encouraged to focus on operational delivery and narrow expertise
  • Political skills: men were encouraged to pro-actively leverage workplace politics; women were encouraged to cope with politics and ‘toughen up’
  • Asserting leadership: men were encouraged to claim their space in pursuing leadership ambitions, women were advised to be cooperative and get along with their team
  • Confidence: men were advised to develop confidence in specific skill sets, whilst women were described as inherently lacking confidence and told to be generically more confident.
 Men are encouraged to...Women are encouraged to...

Set the vision

Focus on being visionary and think about the "big picture."

"Feature the details and look to the longer term."

"More focus on national and regional agendas [...], leading to a strategic rather than operational review".

Focus on delivery

Focus on operational tasks; execute other people's vision and develop expertise in narrow specializations.

"[Develop] broader knowlegde of finances and how they work...[and] of the procedures."

"Needs to have better analytical abilities with complex issues."

Political skills

Leverage politics

Anticipate political considerations and proactively leverage politics to influence and network upward. 

"Build broader alliances with those who hold power."

"Develop politics as 'language.' Knowing the plethora of interdependent relationships around him will enable him to use his skills to develop politically."

Cope with politics

Toughen up, reduce tensions, and "cope" with office politics; network horizontally. 

"More resilience in dealing with the nastier political types is needed."

"Her Achilles' heel as group leader is letting others' jibes get to her."

Asserting leadership

Claim their space

Be assertive in pursuing leadership ambitions. 

"Would benefit by taking a more prominent role."

"He needs to be given more responsibility to broaden his experience. The ability is all there; he just needs the opportunity to develop."

Get along

Be cooperative and deferential in exerting leadership.

"Learn to wrok collaboratively; treat people with respect."

"Does not suffer fools gladly; could develop better tolerance techniques."


Display more confidence

Develop confidence in specific skill sets and 'display' it - confidence is framed as fixable. 

"While a confident person, he will sometimes not express arguments or positions forcefully enough."

"Become more confident and prominent in the leadership role, being able to debate more forcefully while retaining control."

Be more confident

Female leaders' lack of confidence is described as an inherent, general flaw, without actionable advice. 

"Needs to be a bit more confident and have a bit more self-belief."

"She lacks the confidence that she should have in herself and her judgement."

© HBR 2021

Dr Elena Doldor said: “Visionary and political skills are essential for progression into senior leadership. If women are not encouraged to develop these skills as much as men are, it is unsurprising that we see uneven representation in leadership ranks. Similarly, it isn’t particularly helpful to simply tell women to “be more confident”. When we demystify the notion of confidence and relate it to specific skill sets, the advice becomes much more actionable.”Feedback provided to women was therefore less actionable and less useful for leadership progression than feedback given to men.

The good news is, this subtle bias can be mitigated through deliberate action. To make developmental feedback more gender-inclusive, managers must scrutinize the messages they communicate in that feedback. The article provides practical suggestions for how managers can provide more equitable feedback in each of the four areas identified above.

By refocusing developmental conversations in the four key areas of bias outlined, managers can begin to overcome their unconscious biases and more effectively support the leadership development of both men and women.

The study was co-authored with Dr Maddy Wyatt and Prof Jo Silvester.



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