The XX Factor

Managers Are Afraid to Give Women Negative Feedback—Until Women Ask for Promotions

Sheryl Sandberg speaks at the The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research on June 22, 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Another day, another study showing that sexism is responsible for the earning and achievement gap between men and women in the workplace. Earlier this month, Australian researchers published a study showing that “women ask for wage increases just as often as men, but their employers are 25 percent less likely to give it to them.” This week, and the consulting firm McKinsey released their second annual Women in the Workplace study, which is based on a survey of 132 companies that employ a total of 4.6 million Americans. Its findings are drearily familiar.

“Women are still underrepresented at every corporate level and hold less than 30% of roles in senior management,” writes Sheryl Sandberg, the founder of, in a summary of the report published in the Wall Street Journal. “And women hit the glass ceiling early: They are far less likely than men to be promoted from entry level to manager, and they continue to lose ground incrementally the more senior they become.” The report contains devastatingly effective data visualizations of this pipeline, in which women’s share of the pie grows smaller and smaller at each step up the corporate ladder. Women represent 46 percent of entry-level employees but only 19 percent of members of C-suite-level leaders. The path is even rougher for women of color, who occupy 17 percent of entry-level jobs but only 3 percent of the C-suite.

Managers and employees alike report disparate treatment of men and women at all levels. Only 36 percent of women report regularly receiving difficult but helpful feedback from their managers, compared to 46 percent of men. And managers themselves have different expectations from men and women when it comes to difficult feedback: 15 percent of managers say they hesitate to give feedback to women because they are “concerned about an emotional breakdown.” Only 6 percent of managers worry about emotional breakdowns from men who hear difficult feedback. This fear of strong emotions from women—rooted in stereotypes that date back to ancient Greece—is preventing women from hearing criticism that will help them improve their performance and get the opportunities for promotion that their male peers are getting.

Ironically, managers’ fear of giving tough feedback to women seems to disappear once those women ask for raises or promotions. Slightly more women than men surveyed reported asking for a raise or lobbying for a promotion or a new assignment. But women who negotiate are 30 percent more likely to be told that they are “bossy,” “too aggressive,” or “intimidating” than men who negotiate. This findings comport with previous research showing that assertive women are penalized more than assertive men are. If it weren’t so infuriating, it would be funny that managers are terrified of giving women feedback—until those women start standing up for themselves.

Seventy-eight percent of the companies surveyed say that gender diversity is a top priority, but clearly those intentions are not translating into action. The report suggests a few possible solutions, many of which relate to the need to hold hiring managers at all levels accountable for the diversity of their teams. “Perhaps the case for gender diversity is not reaching employees, or they worry they’ll be disadvantaged by diversity programs that aren’t fair,” states the report, before making an observation that’s as powerful as it is obvious: “[I]f the workplace was inclusive and fair now, the corporate pipeline would more closely mirror the general population.”