Every year when annual review season rolls around, I often think of my own first-year annual review. In it, my supervisors told me that I could be intimidating to others—to those colleagues who were decades older than me, whom I perceived as much more knowledgeable. This feedback was completely mystifying to me: after all, how could I control others’ reactions? I received no instruction on how to do so, which left me wondering, did I need to be less effective? Less efficient? Pretend to be less knowledgeable than I was? How, and why, would my supervisors want me to fix this? I’m certainly not the only woman aspiring to leadership who has received similar, helpfully intentioned but ultimately unactionable, advice.
According to recent research referenced in Harvard Business Review, gender plays a large role in the feedback that aspiring leaders receive. Where men are encouraged to be visionary, women are encouraged to execute others’ visions. Where men are encouraged to proactively leverage politics, women are encouraged to network horizontally. Where men are encouraged to be assertive—in other words, lead—women are encouraged to be deferential—or in other words, be less intimidating. As the authors of this research share, “feedback provided to women tends to be less actionable and less useful for leadership progression than feedback given to men, making it less likely that women will advance to more senior positions.”
If this kind of awareness of the gender bias in feedback were more understood twenty years ago, I would hope that I would have received more actionable, useful feedback to push me forward on my leadership journey. Instead of focusing on how others received me, I would want to have heard feedback about things like understanding others’ goals and concerns prior to advancing my own vision. I could have learned much more by building trust across the organization with actively listening and empathizing with my supervisors.
My hunch is that a gendered disparity in feedback does not simply start in our working careers but begins in early grades as well. We have to ask ourselves, are we aware of a distinctly gendered approach to leadership in our students? As the authors of this study advise, “to effectively combat gender bias, managers should encourage all employees to develop both qualities—which may (on average) mean more conversations with male employees about developing collaboration skills, and more conversations with female employees about developing assertiveness.”
We could easily switch out the word ‘employees’ with ‘students’ and ask ourselves what this balance might be in every classroom. Are we basing our perceptions of student ability on an experience of student behavior? Are we pushing students towards a certain role based on their physical traits, whether that be ability, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class? The gospel is filled with examples of Jesus seeing people’s abilities beyond the role that society had assigned to them. When providing feedback to students and employees, we can reinforce society’s assignations; or, we can examine our own biases and actively work to recognize and reinforce the image of God in others.
Our students deserve our best, and it is our work as educators to help them develop their own gifts to bless our communities and the body of Christ. We have a distinctly Christian responsibility to pay attention to the feedback we give to each other and our students, so that we can reflect the community that God has designed us to be. As reflected in describing the body of Christ, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).
As Christian educators, then, how can we ensure that we are combating such bias? As we identify qualities of leadership among our teams and among our students, how are we recognizing gifts of all kinds in the body of Christ? The research shows great amounts of pressure from our society to identify and develop certain kinds of gifts in certain kinds of packages; but, we know that God works through all of His people.
With attention to this bias, we can then impact the next generation of leaders and Christian disciples to live faithfully into the gifts they have been given. My prayer is that we strive to honor the Christ-like qualities we see in each other, regardless of gender, ability, race, or class, so that we can bring glory to God.