When I first moved to Chicago, I knew absolutely no one, so I got involved in all sorts of things. I joined the Junior YWCA Board, the PRSA Chicago board, and Chicago Sport and Social Club so I could make friends while I trained for my first marathon.
The marathon training aside (I made great friends and also killed my poor knees!), the work I did with PRSA and YWCA helped me solidify my feminism. Before then, I thought feminism was a bad word. Ah, how young and naive I was! (Also, very sheltered.)
I’ve also noticed massive disparities that, as a business owner, I’ve been able to mitigate. But working with clients, it’s harder because I’m not in control. One of those disparities is in how feedback is provided to women versus men.
You know what I mean: women are told they are doing a nice job and get pats on the head, while men are told they’re crushing it because they drove a certain percentage of revenue or landed a big new client. Even if women have done exactly the same, they aren’t praised in the same way.
The Praise Deficit Between Men and Women
Let’s start out with an example. Hypothetically speaking, let’s say that two members of the same team had similar results in the third quarter. They each landed a whale client, worth upwards of $250,000 in revenue. They each grew their team by 20%. And they each increased the pipeline by 25%.
During their reviews, the man was lauded for these efforts. The feedback was concrete and actionable. “Michael, thank you for all of your efforts in the third quarter. Because of the work you did to land Client A, grow your team, and build the pipeline, we’ll be able to reach our goals more quickly, and will likely hit our stretch goals, too.”
Michael received a promotion and a raise because of all of the hard work that contributed to the growth of the business. He was honored at an all-staff meeting, and he was figuratively carried around on the shoulders of his team as if he’d hit the winning goal.
Likewise, his colleague was lauded for her efforts, too. “Michaela, thank you for all of your efforts in the third quarter. You’re a great asset to the team, and we are lucky to have you here.”
Michaela didn’t receive a promotion and a raise, nor was she honored at an all-staff meeting. Not because she didn’t do equally the same amount of work as Michael nor bring in the same results. But because women are still (yes, this is 2022) treated differently than men.
Provide Specific Feedback
Women receive more general praise than men, as you can see in this example. Michael was praised for the specific things he accomplished, while Michaela was told she’s a great asset to the team and had a great quarter.
Unfortunately, this is not a made-up example. It happens. A lot. And I’ve seen it happen over and over again with the women we work with at our client organizations.
We all need encouragement from other people. We like to act like it’s only Gen Z who needs a pat on the head and are told they’re doing a great job, but the truth is, we all need it.
Regardless of gender, role, or organization, everyone needs external validation to keep moving forward with momentum and motivation, build resilience, and understand where we excel and positively affect the team and our work.
When we receive feedback from others—team members, colleagues, clients, or bosses—we gain valuable insights into the actions and behaviors that matter to them. These insights can, in turn, help us determine and prioritize exactly where it is that we can add value from a position of strength.
This is why it’s important to be as specific as possible in our feedback—both good and bad. It doesn’t help to hear we’re a great asset to the team or that we had a great quarter. Sure, it feels good, but it’s not helpful or actionable.
Why does this happen? And what can we do about it?
Without It, It’s Challenging to Grow
We can individually do several things to close the praise deficit for women. First, be conscious of the fact that you do it. I do it. You do it. We all do it. Stop doing it. If you are going to give a man concrete feedback, do the same for his female peers. Remove the nurture and caregiving feedback and focus instead on results.
Without the same kind of constructive, positive encouragement, women fail to see their authority or contributions as equal in value to those of men and miss out on a critical opportunity to learn and grow.
Darden professor, Laura Morgan Roberts, addresses the praise deficit by saying, “When there are a million things pulling you in different directions in work, it’s hard to really determine the best opportunities for your career and your leadership without the kind of 360-degree feedback that can highlight those sweet spots. Validation from other people is a tool that can help you make strategic decisions about where, when, and how to invest your time and energy to create the most value.”
I recently had a client colleague ask for 30 minutes of my time. When we got on Zoom, he said, “I have really appreciated working with you for the past couple of years, and I would love it if you could give me some feedback on my work.”
He asked me to name some things he should keep doing, some things he should be doing, and some things he should stop doing.
I was happy to provide that feedback, and we had a really good conversation. In my entire career, a woman has never asked for that kind of meeting or feedback.
How We Can Close the Praise Deficit
So, while it is up to us to change the way we provide feedback, it’s also up to women to ask for it.
That is one way to do it. Another way is to study your own success.
Roberts goes on to say, “People say and do a lot of positive things in our daily lives, but women, in particular, are socialized to tune them out or undervalue them in some way,”
Ask your colleagues and others you trust to give feedback on your work. If you work with vendors or partners, ask them for feedback like the client colleague did with me. This will help you identify your peak experience and know where you should focus and where you should let go.
I like putting it in the framework of “what should I keep doing, what should I add on, and what should I stop doing?”
Earlier this year, a CMO I worked closely with resigned and I had my last call with him. I learned a great deal from him, and I wanted to be sure that we didn’t lose touch, and that I also got some feedback from him on my work.
He positioned his feedback to me in terms of my superpowers: things that only I can do while things that are not my superpowers could be delegated more effectively. I think about that conversation a lot, especially when I’m mired in tactics and I can’t reach the top of the surface. I ask myself, “Is this my superpower?” The answer is almost always no so I quickly find someone on my team to help me—someone whose superpower is the work that I should not be doing.
We Can All Create Change
It stinks that it’s 2022 and we still have to stand up for ourselves so that we are treated equally. But there is something we can all do: as an individual, make sure the feedback you are getting is concrete, constructive, and (oh, shoot! I need another C word!) actionable.
As men, provide feedback to women that is focused on the results they achieve and their accomplishments. Stay away from the general nurturing and caregiving feedback. As women, stick up for one another and make sure the feedback you give to the other women on your team is effective.
I watch my nieces and nephews who are in high school and college, and I’m not at all worried about the change they will make. But we have to try to leave the working world better for them. It starts with ending the praise deficit.