Level Up Your Career

Feedback Gap Can Hold Women Back

This article is sponsored by Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper School of Business)

Early in their career, women can face a hidden stumbling block. Research shows women are not getting the same kind of feedback as their male colleagues. They aren’t hearing about what they need to do better, what they need to know more about, what skills they need to master.

When women do get feedback, it’s often more about style than skills: ‘Be more confident’ or ‘Be less abrasive’ or ‘Don’t be so nice.’ And this is often what they are judged on when promotion comes up. Meanwhile, men are hearing: ‘You misread that data — make sure you understand how to read a balance sheet’ or ‘Have you thought about looking at MBA programs?’

Why is the right feedback so important?

If no one pushes you to learn skills you lack, you may think you’re doing fine when you’re actually missing opportunities. The feedback gap can be attributed to an array of causes, including unconscious biases and fear of a bad reaction to negative feedback. Those giving feedback — men and women — also need to think about this. An awareness that women are getting less or different feedback can begin to break the cycle and elicit substantive, skill-based feedback for everyone.

In the meantime, this is the world you are building your career in. You need specific, concrete techniques to get the feedback you are missing.

How to ask for feedback

How do you get the constructive criticism you need? First, don’t wait for your annual review. Ask regularly, and informally. Be specific. “Do you have any feedback for me?” is likely to generate “no” as an answer. It can be uncomfortable for people to give feedback, especially across differences of gender, race, age, or seniority. They don’t know how you might react.

By asking targeted questions, you let people know you are open to feedback and at the same time guide them to the kind of evaluation you want. Try these:

  • What’s one thing I could have done better in that meeting or presentation?
  • What’s a skill you think I could work on learning?
  • What are two things I could improve in my work?
  • How did that go from your perspective?
  • Could you tell me what I should start doing? Stop doing? Continue?

How to respond

So asking for feedback is the hard part, right? Not quite. Now you have to respond appropriately. If it’s positive feedback:

  • Fight the urge to downplay your achievements. Don’t say “Anyone could have done it” or “You’re just being nice.”
  • Recognize your hard work and others who helped you succeed.
  • Thank them.

Keep in mind that we judge ourselves on our intent, while others judge us based on their perception. These often aren’t in sync! If it’s constructive or negative feedback:

  • Accept it graciously; don’t tell them why they’re wrong.
  • Don’t get defensive by explaining or justifying what they’ve critiqued.
  • Ask clarifying questions: “How do you think I could have handled that differently? Could you share an example that made you see me as rude? What could I have said in response to that question?”

Leadership at Tepper

All Tepper MBAs work with the Accelerate Leadership Center and learn about receiving feedback and more! Tepper students receive one-on-one executive leadership coaching and attend leadership workshops and programs. Learn more about leadership development at Tepper.

Want more?

Watch our Discover the Difference: Tepper Women in Business webinar to hear directly from women at Tepper about their experience.

Join us for Diversity Weekend, where Tepper representatives will showcase the differences and advantages of our diverse community, program, and global alumni network. We also share tips on the MBA application process.


Leanne Meyer directs the Carnegie Mellon Women’s Executive Leadership Academy at the Tepper School of Business. She is the author of Climbing the Spiral Staircase: How Women Can Navigate Their Careers and Accelerate Success.

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