Overcoming Gender Bias in Performance Feedback #4: Benevolent Sexism


In previous posts on overcoming gender bias in performance feedback, I've written about how women are often given feedback on their personality rather than performance and how they are frequently the recipients of vague feedback. Now, it's time to talk about the third gender-based pitfall women often face when receiving feedback ~ the tendency of supervisors to try to protect their feelings.

You might be thinking, "Why is trying to protect someone's feelings a bad thing? Shouldn't we all try to be kind in the workplace?" Well, being kind isn't a bad thing, and we do need to be kind and respect others' feelings when providing feedback, even when it's negative. However, there are a number of ways in which this desire to protect women keeps them from advancing in the workplace. 

As I talked about in my last post, women are often told they are generally doing a good job without identifying specific actions that are valued or positive. There is also a tendency, especially among male managers to engage in "protective hesitation," worrying that their feedback will hurt their female employees feelings or not be received well. In the same way, women are often "shielded" from taking on challenging experiences. Both male and female supervisors engage in this type of behavior. For example, a male friend told me just last week that his supervisor said she was not going to invite a female colleague to work on a project "because she just had her first baby, and I know she won't want to do it." These are examples of benevolent sexism.

Benevolent sexism is a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men.
— Glick & Fiske (1996)

How should managers and supervisors provide challenging feedback while also being kind, whether that feedback is being given to a man or a woman? 

  1. Begin by recognizing your own internal barriers to providing challenging feedback. Your tendency to protect others, especially women, is likely more about you than it is about them. Are you afraid of conflict? Do you have a hard time knowing how to respond to strong feelings? 
  2. Make a point of providing both positive and challenging feedback to every employee. This insures you are consistent in the way you provide feedback. Your direct reports will come to appreciate and expect that consistency from you. As a result, it will be less likely that they personalize the challenging feedback you do give.
  3. Empathize with how difficult it can be to receive challenging feedback. It would be good practice to say to every direct report, both male and female, "I know it can sometimes be hard to hear challenging feedback, but I'm committed to providing you with a clear, honest review to provide you with the information you need to continue growing and advancing with our company." 
  4. Challenging feedback should always be linked directly to performance expectations and outcomes, rather than focusing on vague personality characteristics. You may need to have a conversation with an employee about her communication style, but rather than focusing on the style itself, focus on how the style impedes her ability to meet goals. Again, this helps to distance the challenging feedback from the person and to focus it on the work.

I hope this series on overcoming gender bias in performance feedback has been informative and provided you, as a manager or supervisor, with actionable steps to provide more effective feedback to your female employees. What is good for women in the workplace is good for everyone, so your male employees will benefit as well!


Bear, J. B., Cushenberry, L., London, M., & Sherman, G. D. (2017). Performance feedback, power retention, and the gender gap in leadership. The Leadership Quarterly.

Correll, S., & Simard, C. (2016, April). Research: Vague feedback is holding women back. Harvard Business Review.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. (1996). The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating hostile and benevolent sexism. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70 (3), 491-512.

Jaime Goff