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Stop Killing Women With Kindness

3 questions to test if the Protector Bias is holding women back in your company.

Posted: June 26, 2017 in Training Magazine
Article Author: Sara Ross, Senior Research Consulting Partner, Institute for Health and Human Potential

After six years of working for a mining company, Joanne was considering leaving. It wasn’t due to a lack of support or the hostility of working in a male-dominated industry. Instead, she wanted to quit because her performance reviews were too good.

Knowing there were things she needed to learn, she was open with Paul, her leader, asking for performance feedback. During their one-on-ones, Paul praised Joanne’s passion and drive. Instead of specific feedback, he offered to reduce her workload to alleviate the pressure. The problem was, Joanne didn’t need less work, she needed the feedback to learn and grow. Without it, she felt stunted in her development. Unfortunately, research (as showcased in the IHHP Women Under Pressure white paper) suggests she’s correct.

While women bring significant, valuable contributions to their professional roles, they also face a significant hurdle—pressure. If unmanaged, pressure inhibits both male and female leaders, preventing them from performing at their best. However, IHHP’s research shows that women have a second layer of pressure that men don’t. Women must fight harder for status, are under-represented, have smaller networks with less support, and must “prove” themselves in a still-patriarchal business environment.

This was certainly true for Joanne, who was facing the pressure of working in a male-dominated industry, and frustrated that her (male) boss wasn’t helping her evolve within the company. When she finally told Paul she felt stunted, Paul was surprised. He didn’t believe Joanne was less competent then her male counterparts. In fact, he viewed her as a high potential. However, he knew Joanne was taking care of a sick parent. Although she had a support network at home that allowed her to be present and focused at work, he buffered her from critical feedback because he didn’t want to hurt or overwhelm her. His justification was simple: He was only trying to help.

On the surface, it appears Paul is a supportive, empathetic leader. Unfortunately, Paul’s underlying assumption that Joanne needed to be protected was turning out to be more detrimental than helpful.

The 2016 Women in the Workplace Report, a comprehensive study of the state of women in corporate America, shows women receive as much as 20 percent less specific and developmentally focused feedback to help them improve performance and address potential career derailers vs. their male counterparts. These findings are reinforced by Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard’s research. After reviewing 200-plus performance reviews, they found women consistently receive vague feedback both in terms of praise and constructive direction.

Paul was falling into a common bias toward women: the “Protector Bias.” He unconsciously wanted to protect Joanne’s feelings, due to excessive concern for her welfare.

Unlike overt stereotypes, the protector bias appears in the form of excessive praise and kindness, especially in male-dominated industries. What’s less obvious (but more dangerous) is that when it comes to developmental feedback, promotions, challenging projects, and high-pressure roles, women often are overlooked by these same managers, who believe women are less able to handle the pressure, and need help, protection, and more guidance in how they balance their time and workloads with personal responsibilities (Glick et al., 2007).

While male leaders often have good intentions, the protector bias can damage women’s careers. How does this fly under the radar?

Protector bias is hard to identify because it doesn’t seem discriminatory. To determine if the protector bias is holding women back in your organization, look for indicators in direct conversations with women, discussions about women, and written performance reviews. Are women being highly and generally praised for their performance but getting less performance-specific feedback? Look for generalities such as “we love her work ethic” or “people love working with her.” Though nice sentiments, they don’t provide actionable performance feedback to drive growth.

Specific feedback could include: “find opportunities to attend regional meetings and share your division’s goals and priorities to aid in buy-in alignment.”

The protector bias undermines women’s confidence while reinforcing the notion that women are less competent. In a 2007 study, researchers investigated the impact of benevolent sexism on women’s performance. Not surprisingly, they found that benevolent biases negatively impacted women’s performance, increased their self-doubt, and eroded confidence. What’s surprising: This hard-to-detect bias was far more detrimental than overt discrimination.

It’s hard to address because the “offenders” feel like they’re helping. Most men would say they believe women are just as capable as men. Andrea Kramer, the author of “Breaking through Bias” found that only 12 percent of men think gender bias is a problem in their organization, yet looking at the disparity in pay, promotions, and female executive leaders, the problem is vastly underestimated. If feedback is expressed differently for men than women, a check-in is required.

Paul needs to consider if providing “kind” feedback is a pattern with just Joanne (the only woman in his group) or with all his direct reports.

3 Questions

Ask these three questions to determine whether the Protector Bias is holding women back in your company:

  1. Is it for you? Are you being too “kind” with feedback because you don’t want to look bad, hurt the relationship, or have employees dislike you? If so, you’re missing opportunities with your female employees and all your potential higher performers. Constructive, development-focused feedback is key to professional growth and competence.
  2. Is it for her? You don’t want to hurt her feelings, or you worry she won’t be able to handle the feedback? Do you want to “protect” her? If so, you’ll limit your female employees’ growth and/or retention of high performers.
  3. If a male colleague were standing in front of you, would you feel the same apprehension in giving feedback? If there’s any hesitation in your answer, pay attention.

A Strategy for Paul

Paul should consciously shift his mindset. Before his next conversation with Joanne, he should consider how specific feedback could help her grow. He also should realize that a lack of information will hold Joanne back and imply that she’s less competent than her male counterparts.

A strategy for Joanne

Joanne needs to continue pushing for specific feedback. After the next conversation with Paul, she should focus on her performance and keep the intrusive self-doubts at bay. Joanne needs to trust herself, continue to build her awareness, and elicit feedback from others.

As Dr. Kristen Jones shared in her article, “Stop Protecting Women from Challenging Work,” “All people like to be treated with courtesy and respect. But it does mean that some behaviors—those that are patronizing, overly protective, and unsolicited—can be harmful. Women can get by with a little less of this kind of help from their colleagues.”

Don’t let kindness impair a career.

Sara Ross is a senior research consulting partner at the Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP). In a world where pressure pervades all aspects of our lives, Ross is skilled in helping people and organizations build their “pressure tolerance.” Ross has challenged and supported leaders of Fortune 500 companies, including MARS, Allstate, Wyndham Hotels, and TD Bank, as well as leaders at the University of Toronto, to be their best even in the most difficult pressure-filled situations.

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