Cornell researchers find women are lied to at work during this type of meeting

The push for full gender equality in the workplace is still very much a work in progress, as evidenced by a new piece of research just released by Cornell University. Researchers have found that female employees are more likely to receive inaccurate feedback, or “white lies,” during job performance evaluations. 

Considered relatively harmless, everyone has told at least a few white lies. Most of the time, these seemingly inconsequential acts of deception are told to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings or present oneself in a favorable light. For example, perhaps as a child, you lied to your parents about dinner being delicious (it wasn’t) or more recently told your manager you’re more than happy to pick up some extra work over the weekend (you weren’t happy about it all).

In this case, though, the team at Cornell say that underperforming female employees are often given nicer, but ultimately less honest, performance feedback than similarly poor-performing male employees. 

One could guess that the vast majority of female employees out there would resent the notion that they must be spoken to more delicately than their male peers. Beyond just that aspect though, dishonest job feedback robs women of valuable information they can use to better themselves.

“Given that developmental performance feedback is a ubiquitous and important process in most workplaces and of many people’s working lives, access to fair and accurate feedback should be available to anyone needing improvement, regardless of his or her social group,” the study reads. “Here we have exposed one factor that may, to a certain degree, impede this access – being a woman.”

Previous research has already shown that women tend to be spoken of more positively than men during holistic work performance reviews (demeanor, attitude), but viewed in a negative light regarding more quantitative or objective evaluation measures. Other studies have also concluded that even when women employees are praised for their work, they are still given fewer resources to work with than men.

In general, women report getting less overall negative feedback from their superiors than men. There are several possible explanations as to why that’s the case, but the bottom line is that male and female employees are being treated differently.

The main goal of this new study was “to provide empirical evidence that there is a greater propensity to positively distort information, or tell white lies, to women during person-to-person feedback,” co-author Vivian Zayas, associate professor of psychology in the Cornell College of Arts and Sciences, says in a university release.

So, the research team conducted two experiments. The first asked a group of participants to read a fictional manager’s written assessment of an employee’s poor performance. Then, they were given a transcript of what the manager chose to tell that employee in person. Study volunteers were randomly assigned different transcript versions; some were identical to the written evaluation and quite harsh, while others took a much kinder, less truthful tone.

Then, participants were asked to guess the gender of the underperforming employee based solely on the feedback transcript they had read.

“Participants overwhelmingly guessed that an underperforming employee who had been told a white lie – the least truthful, but the nicest feedback – was a woman,” explains co-author Lily Jampol, Ph.D. ’14, a diversity, equity and inclusion strategist at ReadySet, a consulting firm in Oakland, California. “This finding suggests that participants believe that this is a likely occurrence in giving feedback.”

The second experiment took things a step further. This time, participants were told to grade and evaluate two badly written essays. The authors’ genders were kept secret from participants. Next, after submitting their initial essay evaluations, participants were asked to give the authors feedback directly via an online chat. Once the participants entered the chat, it was revealed to them that one essay was written by a man and the other was written by a woman. 

The participants’ feedback once they learned the writers’ gender changed significantly regarding the female author. All in all, they told the female writer more white lies about her writing, and in many cases, even raised her score by a full letter grade in comparison to their initial assessment of her essay. In comparison, feedback given to the male author in the online chat was identical to the participants’ first impressions of his work.

The conscious or subconscious motivations behind these tendencies and lies toward women in the workplace may not necessarily be toxic or misogynistic, but they still represent another obstacle in the fight for true professional equality between genders.

The full study can be found here, published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

John Anderer is a frequent contributor to Ladders News.