School of Business and Economics


8 Mar 2021

Research shows how female leaders are held back by receiving less actionable developmental feedback than men

Photo of a women receiving feedback

High profile research by Loughborough University’s Professor Jo Silvester, Associate Professor Madeleine Wyatt (Kent University) and Associate Professor Elena Doldor (Queen Mary University of London) has found that differences in developmental feedback can direct women along different — and less effective — leadership pathways than men, creating long-lasting gender inequities.

The research – recently published in the Harvard Business Review – showed that whilst businesses typically employ more female managers than ever before, women advance into senior leadership roles much more slowly than men, and that one important factor affecting this how they are given developmental feedback.

Below we summarise the key findings of gender bias and suggest actionable ways in which organisations can rebalance this.

Key findings

The research found four key differences in the how developmental feedback was framed for female leaders:

  1. Vision: Men are encouraged to set the strategic vision and think about the ‘big picture’ whilst Women are encouraged to focus on operational delivery of the vision
  2. Organisational politics: Men are encouraged to network up to influence more senior decision makers whereas Women are encouraged to develop resilience to cope with internal politics and only network horizontally with those at their own level
  3. Asserting Leadership: Men are actively stretched to become more assertive and ambitious, whereas Women are encouraged to ‘get along’ by being more cooperative and deferential in exerting leadership
  4. Confidence: Men are encouraged to show their confidence more, whereas Women are seen as lacking confidence to start with without actionable insights in how to ‘fix’ this.

The feedback to both male and female leaders examined in this study was, overall, positive; however, the bias uncovered by the framing of feedback – however well-intentioned – has a detrimental impact on enabling women to progress into more senior leadership roles.

How can organisations correct this gender bias?


  • Encourage female leaders to develop their own strategic vision for their team, thinking about the big picture, not just their areas of technical expertise.
  • Male leaders need to also consider operational level development as well as vision setting

Political skills

  • Managers need to encourage female employees to proactively develop the networking, negotiating, and influencing skills that are essential for progressing to senior leadership roles. This can be done by encouraging them to ‘manage up’, map out the key players and hidden agendas and then finding ways to build relationships with these powerful influencers.
  • Male leaders also need to foster alliances within their peers as well as those more senior than them

Asserting leadership

  • Women need to be encouraged to be explicit about their leadership ambitions and take on development opportunities – as well as developing a collaborative, team-orientated mindset
  • Men need be actively encouraged to develop collaboration skills and a team-orientated mindset, in addition to pursuing their leadership ambitions.


  • Both women and men should be given actionable advice that encourages them to develop confidence in specific areas of their work, rather than generic comments as to them lacking confidence in general.

Want to know more?

Read the Harvard Business Review article in full here >

Professor Jo Silvester is a Professor of Work Psychology in our Work and Organisation academic group within Loughborough University’s School of Business and Economics.