White Lies at Work are Hurting Women

Two women in a corporate setting, looking at documents and a computer.

Little white lies have BIG consequences for women in the workforce. With gender bias and stereotypes heavily ingrained at work, managers are stretching the truth when it comes to performance evaluations. One recent study suggests that perceptions of femininity are getting in the way of leadership providing honest and critical feedback to women—thus, holding women back from breaking through the glass ceiling.

In one experiment conducted by researchers Lily Jampol and Vivian Zayas, participants were asked to review a hypothetical manager’s assessment of an employee’s performance and guess the gender of the employee. Participants felt that the harsh and direct feedback was given to a man, whereas the feedback with the little white lie (feedback that was the least truthful but the nicest) was given to a woman. In the second experiment, participants were asked to grade two poorly written essays, with the names of the authors hidden. The participants were then told to provide feedback to the writers over chat, where the author’s name (Andrew or Sarah) had been revealed. Sarah’s evaluation not only came with little white lies, but her evaluation was boosted a full letter grade higher than the initial score she earned during the participants’ private review. Andrew, however, received the same critical feedback as the earlier private evaluations.

Women are dealing with performance review bias left and right. The authors of the study believe that managers view women as lacking the same confidence that men possess, leading to the gentler feedback—even if that means lying. The study further proves how stereotypes are backing up the management promotion pipeline, as women are not being given the same opportunities to improve their performance, hone their skills, and develop their practice the same way men are. George Washington University Law professor Naomi Schoenbaum says, “This shows the reach of harmful sex stereotypes expecting femininity from women, even when they are inaccurate.”

Take Action! Tackling bias at work is difficult—but not impossible. Check out these five ways to reduce unconscious bias at work.