In my coverage of new management and organizational psychology studies, certain themes come up again and again. Your brain is wonky, your pursuit of happiness is backfiring, and your time management obsession is making you busier, for example. But the most common kind of research I come across is also the most annoying.
According to a perpetually growing stack of studies, women really do face a minefield of enraging double standards at work.
If you'd like to read my back catalog on the subject, there are lots of options. But the essence of all the articles is the same: Whether professional women are asking for raises, cracking jokes, interjecting in conversations, or negotiating for their teams, they are judged far more harshly than their male colleagues.
And now the time has come to add yet another item to this list. Women can't even give constructive feedback without facing bias.
Beware offering feedback while female
This latest discovery comes courtesy of Middlebury economist Martin Abel, who recently took to The Conversation to detail his research on how employees respond to criticism from their bosses. To investigate the issue, Abel recruited 2,700 online workers to transcribe receipts, assigning half to a fictional manager with a female name and half to one with a male name. All participants were offered constructive criticism on their work.
"Results show that both women and men react more negatively to criticism if it comes from a woman. The subjects reported that criticism by a woman led to a larger reduction in job satisfaction than criticism by a man. Employees were also doubly disinterested in working for the company in the future if they had been criticized by a female boss," reports Abel.
Even more frustrating, Abel found even workers who reported having positive experiences working for a female boss before had these negative reactions. Those who claimed to fully support women's advancement at work subconsciously reacted poorly to feedback from a woman as well.
The only sliver of a silver lining is that the youngest workers were least susceptible to this bias, though Abel cautions that this may mean employees in their 20s are more fair-minded or that they just become more biased as they age.
What should we do?
The best way to fix this is clearly for workers to knock it off and take feedback from female leaders exactly the same as they would the same message from a male boss. But here in the real world, is there anything we can do to diminish this knee-jerk hostility to women's feedback?
Abel notes that several companies "have employed 'feedback coaches,' teaching workers to focus on the content of feedback rather than the identity of the person providing it. There is also evidence that informing people of their biases may affect their behavior." Another line of research suggests that highlighting the accomplishments of a female leader before being exposed to criticism from her makes employees more receptive to her feedback.
On the individual level, all these results suggest that we should stay humble about our own biases. However noble your intentions, you are probably not too different from the workers in this study. Even if you don't consciously intend to in any way, it's likely you take negative criticism from women harder. Being aware of this bias could help you fight it.