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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257 Comments

  • 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.

  • 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!>

  • 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.

  • 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!>

  • Katie Helms

    Who is the artist that made the banner image and where can I see more work like this?

  • Ken Adamson

    Significantly more women have borderline personality disorder, which often includes abrasiveness and backstabbing.

  • Ryan Guenther

    Tact on one side and respect from the other add up to the difference between "bitchy" and "assertive". Tact, "the art of making a point without making an enemy," is my favorite definition. Power, the ability to get one's way in a given situation, is born out of respect. Men may automatically grant each other a level of physical respect, as in evolutionary terms that's all we had to go by. This initial (but separate) level may be the heart of the issue in a "gender equality" argument. One can take power or be given it, but it's not produced in any one person from the ether. If I take it, I will be resented. When others respect and follow you, you can affect meaningful change. Power can come from vulnerability, as people will come forward to help a person in need. If I am "abrasive," hostile, showing no vulnerability or appreciation while voicing my opinion - I am not projecting strength but fear such that respect is the last thing I garner. I might even be called bitchy.

  • It would be interesting to see the correlation (if any) of the gender of the reviewer to the gender of the reviewed. I haven't witnessed it in my career, but my wife has shared horror stories of the poor relationships, gossiping, and outright sabotage, between female coworkers. In many cases between individual that are not competing against each other. Those are habits that could very easily be the basis of negative reviews, and may also be written up a bit abstractly, but are not likely to be accepted as legitimate unless the reviewed feels that the other side is also being called out.

  • Cyndi Simpson

    Thanks for mansplaining about those bitchy women. Nothing like internalized sexism.