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.

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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.

via. Fortune.com

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.

Hat tip: Fortune

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[Photo by Flickr user See-ming Lee]

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270 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • dawley.sarah

    It's not necessarily about the word "abrasive" specifically, it's the fact that the performance reviews of men rarely contained any personal character critiques. Their critiques were focused mainly on developing new skills and work performance, which I would argue is what most performance reviews should focus on, and not on subjective aspects of their character or personality.

  • ivdimples

    I would disagree, to an extent. It is in part about the word abrasive. Think about the word and then think about a situation in which you would find a male to be abrasive. Do the same for a woman. Now (assuming that for most of us it was easier to find the situation for the woman, if you found one for the man at all), take the situation in which you pictured the woman and place the man in it. Would you call him abrasive now, or would you use another word for him? Or would you avoid using a descriptor altogether and instead suggest corrective action?

    This is a word with negative connotations that is primarily utilized to describe women. Instead of debating why we as a society feel this is ok, I would instead proffer the idea that because we don't instinctively utilize it or other descriptors for men in these situations we instead identify corrective actions to the problem. Which to me indicates, less standalone descriptors = more actionable feedback.

  • ryoaska1

    The reality behind the study didn't surprise me, but the word 'abrasive' actually did. In most of the cases I think of that word I'm actually usually thinking of men (and often it's specifically in the context of work). Unlike the guy i argued with above though, I don't think that invalidates what you're saying or the trend the article points to at all, it just happens to be my own experience.

    It's also possible that it's still rooted in subconscious sexist attitudes (like- maybe I'm not taking interactions with women as seriously, and behavior I think is abrasive doesn't register/bother me as much?). I think I've just come across more abrasive men at work than women though... There are also way more men at my work than women, which is another problem in itself.

  • the_npp

    ... Orrrrrrr, maybe women ARE more abrasive than men by <gasp> nature! I know my mom was a LOT different than my dad when growing up, Maybe <gasp!. these aspects are present in the <gasp! gasp!> workplace as well! <Gasp!>

  • ryoaska1

    Uh oh- an example of <gasp!> TWO whole humans that fits your hypothesis. STOP THE PRESSES!

    When you've actually run a controlled experiment and have some data, come back and write your own article. We all can't wait to read it!

  • legendsghost

    I find it hard to make out what you're trying to say with all the gasping. Maybe you should try again when you're not feeling so winded. We'll be patient. ;)

  • Please imagine sparkling baby unicorns prancing through a beautiful candy meadow, alongside the very fluffiest tiny bunnies, when you read that this is the most intellectually lazy thing I have read in a long time. That should make it twee enough to be acceptable communication, right?

  • Michele Wilt Miller

    If you ask me, abrasive is in the eyes of the beholder, so... maybe it's just men who are wimps and constantly get rubbed the wrong way.

  • the_npp

    Awww! You're gonna say I think men and women are <gaps!> different, aren't you? Yeah, they are. Mental, physical, social, psycological, and in every other "al" you can think of. To deny such facts is to cover your eyes with both hands, stick you head into a bucket of water and pretend reality doesn't exist.

    <Gasp!> If you'd just stop being abrasive, maybe you'd understand more. :-)

  • Donna Michele Fernstrom

    Actually, to deny that means that you actually read scientific papers put out by psychologists. Because, you see, it's not true - every difference you're pointing to can be traced back to cultural upbringing, not something innate.

    In reality, one man and a different man can think more differently from each other than one man, and one woman. The few trends seen that point to any sex-based psychological differences are just that - trends, and not very strong ones, either. Huge numbers of people break them.

    To deny this, is to ignore modern science, and live in the past, where everything always rosily confirmed what you've always believed.