The one word that shows up in women’s performance reviews, but never in men's. http://www.fastcompany.com/3034895/strong-female-lead/gender-bias-latest-double-bind-employee-feedback by @KathleenEDavis via @FastCompany
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The One Word Men Never See In Their Performance Reviews

There's one adjective that's never used to criticize men, yet it shows up at an alarming rate in women's performance reviews.

Editor's Note: This is one of the most-read leadership articles of 2014. Click here to see the full list.

It’s a scenario that could be straight out of a textbook on gender bias:

"Jessica is really talented, but I wish she’d be less abrasive. She comes on too strong." Her male counterpart? "Steve is an easy case, smart and great to work with. He needs to learn to be a little more patient, but who doesn’t?"

These statements, uttered by an engineering manager who was preparing performance reviews, were the catalyst for linguist Kieran Snyder to see if she could quantify the double standards in the way male and female employees are evaluated.

In a report for Fortune.com, she collected 248 performance reviews from 28 companies from large technology corporations to small startups. The reviews came from 180 male and female managers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly critical feedback was doled out in a much higher ratio to women: 58.9% of men’s reviews contained critical feedback, while an overwhelming 87.9% of the reviews received by women did.

Not only did women receive more criticism in their performance reviews, it was less constructive and more personal. For example, the critical feedback men received was mostly geared toward suggestions to develop additional skills:

"There were a few cases where it would have been extremely helpful if you had gone deeper into the details to help move an area forward."

Women received similar constructive feedback, but they also included the personality criticism such as "watch your tone" and "stop being so judgmental." For example:

"You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone."

Abrasive alone was used 17 times to describe 13 different women, but the word never appeared in men’s reviews. In fact, this type of character critique that was absent from men’s reviews showed up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

These findings, while from a small sample size, illustrate a well-documented phenomenon for working women: The Double Bind. The double bind is the idea that if a women is too "nice" at work or uses stereotypically feminine vocal characteristics she’ll be seen as too soft and won’t be taken seriously. On the flip side, if a woman is too assertive she’s seen as brusque and bitchy.

This paralyzing situation was rumored to be part of the reason why New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson was abruptly fired earlier this year. Even if it wasn’t at the heart of her dismissal, the familiar critiques "abrasive" and "brusque" were often used to describe her management style, but not her male successor.

Unfortunately there isn’t an easy solution to this frustrating situation. Snyder found that even female managers critiqued women’s personalities and not men’s, hinting that these perceptions and biases are deeply and perhaps unconsciously engrained in the way we view women at work.

The first step is perhaps simply pausing and asking why abrasive is an adjective reserved for women.

[via Fortune]

[Photo by Flickr user See-ming Lee]

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289 Comments

  • Kelly Scott

    I have been called "Abrasive". I have even been put to the test of HR and found innocent of unfair job assignments, and personality conflicts are not my problem. I am not allowed to raise an eyebrow or voice. My response was fine, but I will not bat my eyelashes and ask "would you like to do your work, pretty please?" It is a constant discussion with my counterpart (male) and he agrees it's a totally different game with females in positions of managing. I have supervised before with no problems but I was in charge of mostly women. That says something also. kss

  • Carlos Geijo Gala

    Well, so this study attending to the data seems to indicate that women need to improve their relationship with their coworkers. Oh no wait! The males are the one with the problem, lol... If this study results were inverse the first conclusion with the gender swap would be the one that would be published: something like male coworkers gets deserved critical reviews, but you know everything is men's fault, even women shortcomings.

  • Brian

    For all we know, the hiring criteria in the subject company was purely attractiveness for females, vs qualifications for men. Correlation does not imply causation.

  • Cesar Romero

    Flawed study, if it can even be called a study. 180 people? Statistically insignificant sample. It is not linguistics, but politics. And the language of the article smacks of the phony Leftist political statistics and "theories" that were debunked in the 80s and 90s. Sounds like the writer went out in search of "data" to support her ideology. I had hoped this sort of fake "study" was a thing of the past. . Besides, I call men "abrasive all the time." And I use far worse words for men, like "A-hole." And the same happens to me.

  • Kyle Ewert

    Maybe you've forgotten how mathematics works, but these statistics are absolutely statistically significant. Go find an online binomial significance calculator and test it for your self.

    And to top it off, you counter the author's point with a personal anecdote. One silver lining: you at least admit people regularly think you're an asshole.

  • Cesar Romero

    Flawed study, if it can even be called a study. 180 people? Statistically insignificant sample. It is not linguistics, but politics. And the language of the article smacks of the phony Leftist political statistics and "theories" that were debunked in the 80s and 90s. Sounds like the writer went out in search of "data" to support her ideology. I had hoped this sort of fake "study" was a thing of the past. . Besides, I call men "abrasive all the time." And I use far worse words for men, like "A-hole." And the same happens to me.

  • Nemrut Dagi

    Women in the US do tend to be more abrasive than theircounterparts in other developed countries.

    There's a lot of historical baggage they have to deal with coupled with the fact that women are hard-wired to convey more emotion in their communication which can often be interpreted as being too emotional or shrill.

  • Nathan Morgan-French

    I am a male, with a male business partner who was called abrasive multiple times in performance reviews.

  • champski2012

    Oh, it happened to you so this is a universal truth disqualifying the stats above? Got it.

  • joshua.rosenberg

    I'm a male with a female manager and I was called abrasive in my last performance review, and rightfully so!

    The amount of anti-male sexism in the mainstream media these days is absolutely appalling.

  • ryoaska1

    I'm just wondering, did you notice how the author used an actual structured experiment, and the resulting data to prove her point, and you've used a single anecdote?

    Before you tell me the experiment isn't sound, or it's not valid as prove (which are total possibilities), I would STILL ask you how that would stack up against...a single piece of anecdotal evidence.

    The article isn't asserting that there exist no men who have ever been called abrasive in work related feedback. It suggests a trend that women are much more likely to be. Whether the data here has been gathered/interpreted well is a separate subject, and as with any study deserves scrutiny. But to suggest that it's anti-male sexism without having (even suggested) any valid problem with the data is pretty disingenuous, and only betrays your own bias.

  • Jay Averageman

    Until we know how someone managed to come across all these performance reviews and the motives surrounding those who submitted them, it's premature to assume this "study" didn't have an anti-male agenda ... as most these days seem to have.

    Men Bad Women Good

    Is all anyone at Fast Company can write.

  • Alejandro Vladimir Dracul Lopez

    The issue here is simple. Pre-set mind-set. Imagine I told someone I was going to give them a fruit while they were blindfolded. The hesitation factor does not reside in whether or not it is edible because they already know it is a fruit, yet the questions conceived could be what it may taste like, are they allergic, is it foreign to us, must we peel it or straight up eat it? Now replace the fruit with a gender and we already have a problem. On the flip side, not having the information of it being a fruit we come at an impasse were it could be ANYTHING, suddenly our questions stray from peeling, an activity we already had anticipated, to a more cautious view based on the lack of information available. Plainly said,were it possible to wipe the slate clean as default this would never be an issue. We don't see a person as a a blank slate with achievements, personality, credentials or trustworthy, we see a MAN or WOMAN with achievements, personality, credentials and/or trustworthy.