Leadership perceptions and feedback: The Gender Gap

Last week this recent Fortune piece started circulating via email amongst a group of women surgeon colleagues of mine.  Included in the email chain was one friend asking, “Do you think this would be abrasive if I sent it to my Chair?”  and another lamenting about comments during resident evaluations with similar descriptors sneaking in.

For the Fortune article, the author acquired a convenience sample of performance review of men and women in tech; she found that the men were more likely to only receive constructive feedback, and the men were less likely to receive critical feedback.  The key differentiator?  Feedback based upon personality rather than behaviors.  While only 2 men received personality-based feedback, 71 (of 94) women did.  While I’ll blog soon about providing behaviorally oriented feedback, my discussion today is predicated on the previously identified “Double-Bind” dilemma that is faced by women in positions of leadership.

The 2007 Catalyst report that described the Double-Bind identified three main themes about women in leadership roles.    First, women struggle to navigate a narrow middle space between being too soft or too tough.  The bandwidth of “acceptable” behaviors for powerful women is indeed quite narrow.  Second, women leaders face higher demands for competence than their male colleagues.  I’ve said more than once that to truly succeed as a woman in surgery you have to be able to run faster, jump higher, and achieve more; being “average” is not an option for women in surgical training, nor for women in leadership roles.  Finally, women leaders are often perceived as either likable or competent.  We struggle mightily to reconcile these two descriptions, and in many ways it relates directly to being too soft or too tough as a boss.

How do we improve the perception of women as leaders?  The “Ban Bossy” campaign is probably a start, simply because it raises the issue to a level of awareness.  We mandate that evaluation is behaviorally anchored, not personality-based, unless personality issues at hand truly impair someone’s effectiveness in an irretrievable manner (e.g. a personality flaw that results in them yelling and throwing instruments in the OR- ironically, behavior that is disproportionately male). The recognition that cultures, particularly in male-dominated professions, remain conflicted about “whether, when, and how” women should exercise authority is important, but it’s ultimately only half of the battle.  We all need to speak up when we hear those subtle slights being made, and being conscious of them is the first step to generating change.

The truth is that many women ascend into leadership positions because they perceive that they have a responsibility to effect change.  To be an effective change agent, relationships play a tremendous role.  As women leaders, it’s our responsibility to remain purposive in our roles, using those leadership roles as a bully pulpit.  If we’re being placed into roles where we get an audience, we should- and must- use those roles to educate about the need for change.  That’s really the crux of leading, regardless of gender.


(Note:  I would LOVE to figure out a way to study women academic surgeon’s retention/ promotion/ tenure letter content to see if this holds in my own profession.  Anyone want to collaborate?)