Giving Gendered Communication Feedback

I waste a lot of hours about people being wrong on the internet. I’ve decided that when I get annoyed about a gender-tech issue and can’t figure out how to respond, I’m going to provide a helpful (actionable) lesson instead. My hope is even if I can’t respond to everything that’s “wrong” I can at least give some more right things to do.

xkcd has it right.

Recently, my friends have started to take on leadership positions (whether formal or informal) at work.

From my male friends, I’ve started to get questions about how to give feedback to (often junior) female employees. Many of these things relate to interpersonal communication issues vs. say, code quality.

I think the most common two are:

1) How do I tell a woman to stop being self-deprecating about her accomplishments or abilities?
2) How do I tell a woman I work with that she uptalks during meetings, and I’m afraid it’s undermining her ability to be taken seriously?

The general sentiment is “I feel awkward” or “I know this might be gendered so I don’t know if I should say it.” In most cases, the woman deprecates herself, but then knocks every assignment out of the park. If she’s genuinely struggling with job content, that’s a different type of feedback (admittedly many of these suggestions still apply).

I’m the first to say that some of this feedback sub-ideal. We have a workplace culture built on very masculine communication styles. As Christina Xu has pointed out, we should worry less about “impostor syndrome” and more about blowhard syndrome. I agree.

Still, as long as I’m going to be here and working in this sort of culture, I want to at least know how my coworkers are perceiving what I do. Here’s a process to help yourself share possibly awkward feedback around communication styles:

Deciding to Give Feedback

(1) How would you feel if you didn’t give the feedback, and three years down the line it led to her not getting promoted?

It might be scary / uncomfortable for a few minutes or days to consider giving feedback, but think about the long term consequences for her career. This is not about you. Keeping this in mind will help keep you motivated to figure it out.

An early reader of this piece pointed out to me that, it’s also about the long term consequences. If you can’t give constructive feedback to a woman for a short period of time — how would you ever mentor a woman? Women won’t be able to achieve at the same level without having supporters who can give tough feedback.

(2) Are you the right person to give the feedback?

Sometimes, you shouldn’t give feedback at all. If a woman that you’ve never worked with gave a presentation to your team, you probably don’t need to be giving feedback. A good in depth discussion of this is in Lara Hogan’s piece on unsolicited criticism.

If this is someone you work with regularly, it’s appropriate to give the feedback. If you wouldn’t think twice about giving the same feedback to a male peer, you should figure out how to give the feedback. If you wouldn’t give the feedback to male peer — why do you want to give it to a female one?

(3) Have you given a mix of constructive and complimentary feedback so far?

I hate the shit sandwich (good thing, bad thing, good thing). It feels insincere and confusing.

It is important to give regular feedback. If this woman is someone you have worked with before — did you tell her when something was correct? (You shipped that feature really quickly! I thought your technical design doc was really concise/clear, etc). You should be doing this along the way to build rapport, and because both types of feedback are important.

If you do have a relationship and have provided work feedback before, it’s more appropriate to breach the gap and give constructive feedback.

If you haven’t done this, you can still give the constructive feedback. Just realize this issue so you can give more comprehensive feedback going forward.

(4) Is this the right time for the feedback?

The best time to give feedback is right after something occurs. If you haven’t provided the feedback one-on-one to give her a chance to improve, it’s probably a bad idea to dump it into her annual review (or annual peer reviews) with no context.

Giving Feedback & Following Up

(1) Ask first.

This is true for everyone, but it’s always good to start with “would now be a good time to give you some feedback on <X>?”

(2) If you think that “gender” is an elephant in the room, acknowledge it.

This might not legally be the best advice. I prefer when people do this, by far. If someone told me I was abrasive, I’d feel uncomfortable. If they told me they were aware of the double-standards for the word, I’d know that they’d sincerely reflected before talking to me, and had my best interest at heart.

Compare “you were abrasive in that meeting” to: “I think you were a little too forceful in the last meeting. I know there’s research that women are judged more harshly for this, but I felt like your response to Y in particular was harsh. I know you didn’t mean it to come off that way. I think you could have improved the communication by doing A, B, or C. I don’t want you to jeopardize your relationship with Y.”

(3) If you aren’t comfortable with acknowledging gender up front, at least respond if she brings it up.

Early in my career, my manager always expected me to take notes in meetings. I wasn’t sure if this was due to my gender or my (lack of) seniority, and a senior woman that I worked with expressed the same concern.

She ended up encouraging me to ask him, so I did. We ended up having a great conversation, and he explained he’d never realized I might feel that way. It turned out he felt that being the person taking the notes helped with team status, and with gaining future responsibility. A few years later: yeah, he was right. I always try to take notes in meetings, and it’s value to me greatly outweighs any “gendered” nature of the work.

(This isn’t true for everyone — I happen to like taking notes, and have good comprehension while doing so).

(4) Figure out how you can actually help going forward.

If the woman acknowledges its an issue, or expresses a challenge, figure out how you can help in the future. Giving the feedback isn’t the end of the road.

Be sure to ask her for this — “do you want me to point it out if I see this again?” can go along way, as can “do you want to do a dry run of your presentation with me next time?”

The same sort of things you’d do for any coworker who needed help on a specific skill.

Thanks to Sharee Loeffler, Meagan Gamache and Cedric Hurst for reading an early version of this piece and providing some improvements/clarifications in my thought.