Nobody likes being criticised at work. Even if the feedback is well-intentioned, there’s something particularly irksome about having your abilities called into question - even if you know it will benefit you in the long-run.
How we react to criticism at work often depends on who is delivering it.
If it’s a manager you like and respect, it’s far easier to take it on the chin and accept it as constructive. If you are criticised by a difficult boss who you suspect doesn’t have your best intentions at heart, it can be hard to grit your teeth. And as it turns out, we especially dislike criticism when it is delivered by a woman.
Research shows that if men and women are offered the same feedback, it can be taken very differently. For a study published in the Institute of Labour Economics, Martin Abel, an assistant professor of economics at Middlebury College, asked 2,700 people on an online crowdsourcing marketplace run by Amazon to do transcriptions for a fake business. Each individual was given a manager with either a female or male name, each of which were chosen to take into account race, age, education and other factors.
Then, 60% of the workers received either positive or negative feedback from their boss. When asked about their job satisfaction in a survey, both men and women were more negatively affected by criticism from female managers. Having a critical female manager also lowered workers’ interest in working for the firm.
“Notably, for my experiment, the extent to which these gendered expectations actually affect workers’ perception of feedback appear to differ by worker gender. Male workers tend to dismiss the competence of their female managers after receiving negative feedback,” Abel wrote.
So why do employees react so badly to feedback when it is given by a female boss? As Abel explains, both female and male workers have “gendered expectations” of certain management styles. “They are about three times more likely to associate giving praise and appropriate use of tone with female managers. By contrast, they are about twice more likely to associate giving criticism and strict expectations with male managers,” he writes.
Therefore, female managers who criticise workers are violating expectations and breaking gendered social norms.
‘Look past likeability’
“The reason why workers are more negatively affected by criticism from female bosses as opposed to male bosses can be credited to gender biases,” explains Samantha Spica, partnerships and communications manager at FairyGodBoss, an organisation offering career advice for women.
“Women are often expected to be unselfish and when they voice criticism they deviate from a preconceived notion of always being supportive, even if the criticism is meant to help the employee.”
“Research has shown that this makes others uncomfortable and makes the woman less likable so it's important to look past ‘likability’ as a factor for leadership and engage male allies to help advocate for female employees.”
Age can also play a part. Abel’s research found that younger workers reacted less negatively to critical female managers and that gender discrimination disappeared completely among workers in their 20s.
The key problem is that society has a set of ideas about gender roles in society and how we expect men and women to dress, behave, and present themselves. Straying from these norms can lead to social exclusion or ridicule - which can negatively impact women’s careers.
Astonishingly, it has taken until 2017 for employees to change their preference for a male boss. When Gallup first polled American workers in 1953, it came as no surprise that they tended towards wanting a male boss over a female one. A 2013 survey revealed the same result, albeit the percentage of those who preferred a male boss was lower.
Things only changed in 2017, when Gallup finally found a majority of survey respondents had no gender preference, while roughly equal percentages had a preference for male over female bosses and vice versa.
The problem is complicated and there is no quick fix when it comes to challenging preconceived notions of gender in the workplace. Recently, some businesses have begun to hire “feedback coaches” to help employees focus on what is being said when they are given feedback, rather than on who is delivering it.
Informing people and helping them understand their biases can be useful, too, according to a 2018 study. In addition, ensuring more women are in positions of power in business may help too.