Good intentions are not enough: How gender bias shows up in subtle ways.

Sure, many organizations say they want to create more opportunities for women in leadership. And many organizations actually mean it. But even with good intentions, organizations (and you) may be unintentionally making it more difficult for women to ascend and succeed in leadership positions. How? Here are two ways that gender bias shows up in subtle ways, negatively affecting women’s chances of obtaining and being successful in leadership positions.

1. “Claudia is a great team player.”

When writing recommendation letters for women, this kind of statement is very common. And certainly, being a good team player is beneficial (if not essential). So what’s the problem?

It turns out that the problem is not in what is present in these letters, but more about what is absent. Studies looking at hundreds of real recommendation letters found that both men and women tend to describe women using language that emphasizes their ‘communal’ traits – they’re great team players, they get along well with others – but are much less often described in terms of their ability to lead and get things done. And this effect appears to occur even when a given woman is exceptional at leading, getting things done, and being strategic. So who looks more appealing on paper? The leader who is described as getting things done and as being strategic is almost always seen as more hirable and more promotable. Yet, these characteristics are less emphasized in recommendation letters about women who display these behaviors.

2. “Let me give you some feedback . . . ”

One of the ways that people can improve is by getting useful feedback – where do you stand, where are the gaps, what might you do differently. Sure, it doesn’t always lead to improved performance but feedback is a critical part of honing your skills and becoming a more effective leader. And a consistent pattern emerges when you look at studies of gender differences in performance feedback given to men and women. Women receive feedback that is shorter, more vague, and less prescriptive. On average, we (both male and female leaders) are only giving women about half the amount of feedback that we give men, and that feedback is of a lower quality. We tend to give men specific feedback and guidance (next time you should use a different process or method such as…) whereas we tend to be vaguer with women (you should try to be less aggressive when communicating) – which is much less helpful in figuring out what to do differently next time. What makes matters more complicated is that leaders believe they are giving similar and equal feedback – but evidence shows that the truth about their feedback is not the same as the leader’s perceptions.

So what can we do? We fall victim to these biases when we are not aware that they are operating. That’s half the battle. Spread the word about these biases, and watch for ways to counteract them. The next time you’re writing or giving references for women, make sure you are not forgetting to emphasize strategic and leadership qualities. When giving feedback, make it high quality, thorough, and helpful feedback for both men AND women.

Good intentions are not enough to level the playing field.


About the author:

Dr. Sam Paustian-Underdahl is a professor, researcher, and consultant whose work is dedicated to enhancing employee and organizational well-being and effectiveness. Her research focuses on the work-family interface, gender and diversity in organizations, and leadership, in the context of work and organizations. Her research is published in premier academic journals including the Journal of Applied Psychology (JAP), the Journal of Organizational Behavior (JOB), the Journal of Management, and the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology (JOOP), among others, and has been presented at international and national conferences.