White lies—telling a friend you like their so-so haircut, or telling your mother that you’re eating well—are an often-harmless part of life. But when they creep into the workplace, they can systematically skew employees’ ability to know how they’re performing, and become a big problem.
According to new research from Cornell University, this could well be happening in a specifically gendered way, with managers tending to give female employees softened, less honest messages about their performance that could bar the way to accurate self-assessment and improvement.
Over two separate studies, psychologists at Cornell revealed a propensity among experiment subjects to lie to women specifically, where no such tendency was apparent when giving feedback to men.
The first experiment sought to discover to what extent participants were already primed to expect women to be treated more kindly, but with less directness, in a professional setting. Participants were asked to read about a hypothetical manager giving feedback to an underperforming employee. The 182 people taking the test had access to the manager’s truthful assessment, as well as one version of the feedback eventually given to the employee. Each participant was randomly assigned one of six versions ranging from a harsh, bald statement that adhered closely to the manager’s unfiltered assessment, through to a much kinder and less direct summary, and asked to guess whether the employee in question was male or female. As the feedback went from truthful and harsh to less honest but kinder, participants were almost twice as likely to assume the recipient was a woman.
This study doesn’t prove women are told more white lies, but “provide[s] initial empirical evidence documenting the presence of a gender bias in the telling of white lies” in performance feedback, the authors wrote.
In the second experiment, 66 participants were asked to grade an essay by an unnamed writer and then provide feedback to the author. When giving feedback to a writer called “Sarah,” the graders tended to inflate their original grade by about 9%. There was no significant difference in the final grade given when the writer of the essay was called “Andrew.”
The discrepancy in approach could stem from a number of sources, the authors suggested. For instance, women are often perceived to be less confident than men, so the less-harsh feedback could stem from a desire to refrain from rattling the recipient’s confidence.
“[A]ccess to fair and accurate feedback should be available to anyone needing improvement,” the researchers wrote. “Here we have exposed one factor that may, to a certain degree, impede this access—being a woman.”
If women are given less accurate feedback at work, it’s just one small piece of a bigger puzzle about why women aren’t advancing quickly towards parity in areas like power or pay.
Right now, in the depths of a global pandemic, the idea that women receive less accurate feedback at work feels material. The Covid-19 recession is hitting women harder, both because of the industries its affecting, and simply because women are losing their jobs at a higher rate than men. Women are also bearing the brunt of new domestic responsibilities brought about by the crisis, like childcare and cleaning. In a world where many are losing their jobs and trying to understand why, the importance of clear feedback feels all the more crucial.