Vague feedback of "Lacks Executive Presence" is blocking senior women's advancement

Senior women are often told to "pipe down."
Senior women are often told to "pipe down."

Two years ago, when Sheryl Sandberg launched the campaign to “Ban Bossy” for young girls, women also cheered. Many women have been called bossy, or the adult version of the word, at some time. While some women receive direct feedback to act differently, more often, they are just told they lack the executive presence or influence to advance to the C-suite. In many instances, that criticism reflects stereotypes about who makes good leaders. While a long-term solution is to block the reliance on stereotypes when speaking about and evaluating senior women, we need immediate action. My solution? A new campaign to advance women leaders: Ban “Executive Presence.”

“Executive Presence” is often defined as commanding a room, having gravitas or communicating decisively. This critical leadership characteristic is rarely based on demonstrated behaviors, but instead on whether others perceive you as having it.

According to Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, women leaders who are assertive are often “seen as pushy and brusque,” while “these same characteristics are seen as leaderly in men.” Abramson is referencing a well-documented phenomenon, the likeability-competence tradeoff; in other words, the more competent a woman is, the less likeable. This can have real-world consequences. Abramson was fired from the New York Times in 2014 for being “polarizing and mercurial,” despite garnering eight Pulitzer Prizes during her three-year editorship.

“Lacks executive presence” can therefore become a short-cut for….well, bossy.

Ban Executive Presence is a strategy that would eliminate the use of this term as trump card when evaluating senior women. In most instances, feedback that someone lacks executive presence is neither actionable nor specific.

The use of vague feedback is consistent with the findings in our own research. The research team at the Clayman Institute analyzed the language of 200 redacted performance reviews from a high tech company. Our research shows that managers are much more likely to give vague feedback to women. Women in our study received about half as much feedback linked to business outcomes.

Further, we found that women were 3.2 times more likely to receive feedback about having a negative (aggressive) communication style as men. In many cases, these comments show that women were being criticized for behavior that may be considered leaderlike if conducted by a man: “She had a very direct no nonsense leadership style that has not been embraced very well by her peers.”

While it is true that we want leaders who can be collegial, research by Kieran Snyder, among many others, shows that these criticisms of negative personality traits are not evenly distributed. In her analysis of 250 performance reviews from Silicon Valley employees, women overwhelmingly received criticism of their communication styles. Of the 94 critical performance reviews she received from women, 71 had negative feedback related to personality and communication style. Only two of the 83 men’s critical reviews contained similar negative feedback or 75% for women vs. 2% for men. Snyder’s conclusion? “Men are given constructive suggestions. Women are … told to pipe down.”

I recall my first experience of being called "bossy" as a manager. A peer gave me feedback that I was "Not good at working with people who were 'slower' than me." As a result, my boss told me I needed to improve my team leadership. What I later learned was that he thought I needed to share more context before launching into recommendations. If I had gotten that specific feedback, I would have made those changes. Instead, I had to deal with growing perceptions that I was not suited for leadership.

While “Ban Executive Presence” is a strategy to help advance women leaders, this approach can help make the evaluation of performance fairer for everyone. Research shows that when criteria are vague, bias is more likely to creep into the process.

Here are some first steps for the campaign:

  1. Substitute specific criteria for the vague notion of executive presence. Identify the skills, behaviors and business outcomes required to demonstrate executive presence. Then give specific and actionable feedback based on those skills and behaviors.
  2. Block undue criticism of women’s communication styles (executive presence) when evaluating talent. One HR business partner was discussing a senior woman candidate with the executive hiring manager. He criticized the candidate for negotiating her compensation package. Instead of calling out his behavior, the HRBP asked a thought-provoking question. She queried, “Then how did you negotiate your own compensation package?” In that moment, the executive saw that he had criticized this candidate for same behaviors he had used in his own interview process. He reconsidered and made her the offer.
  3. Ensure feedback focuses on valued skills and behaviors, instead of personalities. While our research shows that women are more likely to receive vague, unhelpful feedback, others also face penalties. For example, men were more likely to receive comments that their communication style was “too soft” (60% of references versus 40% in women’s). Thus, personality-based criticism can disadvantage people who do not fit a leadership stereotype. Given that women are only 4.0% of Fortune 500 CEOs, and the numbers are even lower for women of color, removing personality-based feedback is one mechanism to provide broader access to the executive suite.

Join a new cause: Ban executive presence. Create greater access to the executive suite with specific feedback and stop using "executive presence" as a moving barrier to women's advancement.

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