Gender Stereotypes and the Ontogenetically Adaptive Role of Feedback Preferences
Introduction & Theory
It is acknowledged that feedback is an integral part of the learning process and that different types of feedback are suited to different types of situations (e.g., Spector, 2000). The current research examines how gender stereotypes affect working adults' feedback preferences in the context of training. Based on Social Role theory (Eagly, 1987), this paper theorizes why these preferences are ontogenetically adaptive in the social sense of the word. Social Role theory (Eagly, 1987) predicts that male participants will prefer feedback which is consistent with male stereotypes and that female participants will prefer feedback which is consistent with female stereotypes. I hypothesize that female participants will report feeling most satisfied when they receive gender-consistent feedback regarding their leadership style (democratic and interpersonally-oriented) and that male participants will report feeling most satisfied when they receive gender-consistent feedback regarding their leadership style (autocratic and task-oriented). Preferring feedback that is consistent with gender stereotypes is more socially acceptable than preferring feedback that is inconsistent with gender stereotypes. By preferring feedback that is consistent with gender stereotypes, one is accepting social norms and socially prescribed roles. Accepting these creates smooth social interaction over the course of one's work life, which is socially adaptive yet inhibits social progress. Social barriers such as those which gender stereotypes exemplify may affect the resilience of the metaphorical glass ceiling. Gender stereotypes may neutralize the enhancing effects that special training opportunities were intended to create.
Background: Feedback in Training
Feedback is defined as information given to a person about his or her performance. Within the setting of an organization, employees typically receive feedback during training or through a performance appraisal. The scope of this paper will be limited to feedback in training.
The use of feedback is one of the earliest known variables to support learning in the literature. The classical study that started the research was provided by E.L. Thorndike (1927), who has two groups of subjects (both blind-folded) draw hundreds of lines measuring three, four, five, or six inches over a period of several days. The members of one group were given feedback that indicated whether their response was right or wrong within the established criterion of a quarter-inch of the target area. The members of the second groups were not given any feedback. These data indicate that the group that received the knowledge of results improved considerably in its performance, whereas the other group continued making errors. A later study repeated this experiment but included a group that received feedback stating the degree of error (Trowbridge & Cason, 1932). The subjects in this group gained even greater accuracy than the group that was just told that the answers were right or wrong. These are two examples of the numerous studies that have demonstrated the importance of feedback. Researchers suggest that the reason knowledge of results improves performance can be attributed to motivational and informational functions.
A study examining training practices in a safety program addressed the issue of feedback (Komaki, Heinzmann, & Lawson, 1980). Komaki and her colleagues specifically asked whether training alone was sufficient or if it was necessary to provide feedback to maintain performance on the job. This study was conducted in the vehicle maintenance division of a large city's public work department. The researchers selected a department that had high accident rates. The researchers conducted a needs assessment, including examination of safety logs to determine safety incidents that had occurred. With the help of supervisors and workers, they designed procedures to eliminate accident problems. Thus, if it was found that an accident occurred because a worker had fallen off a jack stand, an item was included in the training program that related to the proper use of jacks and jack stands. These training items also formed the basis for a system for observing the effects of performance. The training program involved a number of procedures, including slides depicting posed scenes of unsafe behavior followed by discussions of safety procedures. For example, one slide depicted an employee working under a vehicle without appropriate eye-protection devices. Komaki found that preceding training, employees were performing safely one- to two-thirds of the time. After training, performance improved by about 9%. Komaki then added another condition, including feedback on a daily basis in the form a graph showing the safety level of the group and the safety goals that the group was trying to achieve. This extra condition resulted in an improvement of 26% over the pre-training phase and 16% over the training-only phase. Komaki makes the point that training alone is not sufficient to improve and maintain performance. Rather, training plus feedback provides the most effective strategy.
Most training analysts have placed considerable emphasis on the importance of knowledge of result in the learning process. Unfortunately, many of those who emphasize its importance simply assume that any form of feedback with any sort of timing will accomplish the purpose. Yet, Schmidt and Wulf (1997) found that continuous feedback during the acquisition of a motor skill actually interfered with rather than supported the rate of learning. Ilgen, Fisher, and Taylor (1979) have developed a model describing some important aspects of the processes involved in perceptions of feedback and have summarized some of the conclusions that can be gleaned from the literature:
There is evidence that feedback must be accurately perceived by the recipient to have an effect, and yet it appears that it is often misperceived. This seems to be particularly true of negative feedback.
Results indicate that the accuracy of feedback may be affected by the credibility of the source of the feedback. This implies that individuals who wish to use feedback need to work to develop credibility based on their expertise or on the basis of a trust relationship.
High-frequency levels of feedback are not always better as it may connote a loss of personal control. It may also lead recipients to excessively rely on feedback and not develop their own capability at judging their performance.
The individual needs of the person should be taken into account when choosing feedback. Thus, individuals who are high performers with growth-oriented needs require feedback that emphasizes competency and does not take away from personal initiative. However, poor performers need to be monitored carefully and given very specific feedback.
Feedback should be built into a given training program as appropriate so that the trainee can tell if he or she is learning the correct material. Training that is intended to impart information or knowledge can build in feedback in two ways. First, trainees can be tested on the information with an examination. Second, trainees can ask questions of the trainer. Both of these procedures are a regular part of most college or university courses. Training that is intended to teach a skill should allow the trainees to practice and get feedback as they learn. For example, training in driving an automobile should allow the person to drive with an instructor who will give feedback. Feedback is also built into the task itself. Trainees can tell if they are staying on the road and if they are driving straight.
Gender Issues in Training
Although the feedback literature appears comprehensive, no research examines the relationship between gender stereotypes and feedback in training. In order to understand how gender stereotypes impact working adults' feedback preferences in training, it is first necessary to explore gender issues in the workplace. We will now review literature examining how recent trends of organizational downsizing have affected women's access to training. We will then review a specific body of literature discussing the career barriers that women face. Although this paper only examines adults' feedback preferences, when addressed this subject, the literature couples women with minority groups. For the sake of accuracy then, both women and minority groups will be discussed.
Concern for Maximizing Individual Worker Potential
Recent years have witnessed organizational downsizing. One implication of the decreasing size of the workforce is that it will become increasingly necessary to maximize the potential of the individual worker. This means that the future of work organizations will become more dependent on their ability to effectively use many members of society, often by providing training and giving workers more opportunities for self-directed learning experiences. Despite evidence that indicates the importance of work in the lives of most individuals, a number of difficult realties have existed within the world of work. Many researchers conclude that a contributing factor that has resulted in lost opportunities for qualified individuals is the cycle of discrimination plaguing minorities, women, and older workers. As a result of these lost opportunities, increased litigation has focused on organizational decisions involving training opportunities and their lack of availability to members of minority groups, women, older workers and, more recently, handicapped workers. The HPPS (Bassi & Van Buren, 1998) found that women, minorities, and younger and older people (people less than 25 or more than 55 years old) were less likely to receive training than men, whites, and…
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