Why Executives Don’t Always Give Women Employees Important Feedback

Many fear it will be seen as harassment.

Women occupy a ridiculously — and oft-bemoaned — tiny number of high-powered executive jobs. A new study suggests this is partly because they’re not getting enough feedback about their performance.

Researchers at the Center For Talent Innovation interviewed over 4,000 executives at large corporations about “executive presence”: the tough-to-pinpoint characteristics and behaviors that make people likely to end up in a corner office. They found a number of factors, like how you dress, how well you relate to others, and how much you look people in the eye, to be important. Some of them are innate personality traits that born-to-be-CEO types just have, but a lot of them — like wearing more professional outfits or getting better at making eye contact — are things that can be improved. But often, no one in the office makes employees, women especially, aware of their shortcomings.

“It’s really hard to be that self-aware, so feedback is abolsutely essential. And not only do men get feedback more often, they’re more likely to get it from a male superior, so they’re really getting feedback from the people who are in power,” explained Laura Sherbin, the Director of Research at the Center For Talent Innovation and a coauthor of the study.

Women receive less feedback for a few reasons, the researchers found. Many executives surveyed said they feared the women might take advice too personally, and felt the potential for awkwardness not worth the risk. “People will feel awkward giving women feedback — they’ll have a female colleague or more junior person give it. People say, ‘What if she cries?’” Sherbin said.

In some cases, male executives (executives are overwhelmingly men, like it or not), said they held off giving women feedback — particularly about issues like appearance — because they feared the comments might be seen as harassment.

Those fears are less of a concern with men, so male employees do get more feedback, though still not enough, the study finds.

Obsessing over things like haircuts in the workplace does feel sort of ludicrous in this day and age. And the researchers get that. “Assessing leadership potential by hair style, heel height, nail length, or voice pitch seems silly verging on unfair in our politically correct, post-feminist era, and for that reason alone many senior leaders, especially men, opt out from doling out feedback about executive presence shortcomings,” the study reads. “In other words, they wish things such as voice and appearance didn’t matter, but as our research revealed, they do matter, in large part because how you choose to present yourself conveys respect for others, and implies how you may represent your company, your colleagues, and your work.”

Is there really a “correct” length for your nails? Or pitch for your voice? No, “a one-size-fits-all set of rules” doesn’t exist, the researchers admit.

The study doesn’t suggest that employers order everyone to have nails cut short and painted pink. But it does say if employers feel “that a candidate’s appearance or communication style, for instance, projects a lack of confidence or distracts from the substance of what she says or does, they also have an obligation to share that information.”

But at the end of the day, how you manicure your nails is up to you.

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