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.

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, 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.

Hat tip: Fortune

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[Photo by Flickr user See-ming Lee]

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  • Ben Classen

    I've experienced this so many times. Female superiors with a chip on their shoulder that are, on average, hostile for no reason. I believe this is a feigned attempt to emulate, what they feel, is strength and power. What is missed is the humble responsibility of leadership and no need to be abrasive and harsh. The worst bosses I've had, the ones that were angry, yelled, and used intimidation tactics (poorly), were women. Maybe this report is just finding out the obvious. The cultural pressure on women in leadership often breeds aggressive behavior where it may not normally exist.

  • Really? What about other words in men's reviews from female bosses? And what about actions? As a foreigner (with a bit of an unfortunate accent) working in the UK, and someone that has worked for many international companies for long term projects, I have observed, and suffered, untold numbers of cases of all forms of discrimination. Racism and sexism are everywhere. Everywhere. But the worst kind (the most intensive, consistent and deeply personal type of attacks) in my experience comes from female bosses to male staff. As someone who has recently broken through the (in my view slightly more solid than glass) ceiling of racism, what I truly cannot forget is how often I have seen very senior women being hateful and intensely personal (almost always unfairly) towards men. Now, when I interview women for managerial positions, I cannot help specifically asking myself how they are likely to behave towards their male staff. And you know what? I can forgive myself for this. I really can

  • Billie Akmn

    You may still be proving the point of the researcher. Did you compare written reviews about you between different managers and then against your colleagues reviews? Or did you perhaps view comments by the females differently than the male supervisors or managers. The same words coming from a woman are interpreted as abrasive and hateful. How can you be sure of your own filters and the perspective you hold when there is clearly an ingrained bias we seem to have in society against women's behaviour?

  • jrsanchez716

    Oh my. I was just told in my annual review that "It's not WHAT you say but HOW you say it" - but don't take that as criticism. I am the only female member of the management team, I grew up as a tomboy, I can take a "verbal hit" with the best of them, I have a thick skin & have been around the block a time or two. I have opinions, and have always been encouraged to express them - but apparently only if I am "relentlessly pleasant" in the true "Lean In" style.

    I am pleased to report that both male and female members of my staff received equal measures of positive feedback and constructive criticism in their reviews from me this year. I try to remain balanced and not inject my own bias as a female into the mix. I am venturing to assume that most of the negative comments here are from men, simply because they are not women. We do not experience the same world in the same way, and we women know that although we have made great advances, we still are not treated equally.

  • Freja Leonard

    Edwin - define abrasive. Would abrasive conduct include sexism, ball scratching in a work environment, interrupting a person when they are saying something relevant to the workplace? All of those behaviours I have witnessed at work, have found them to be genuinely grating and none of these would be brought into a work review - particularly one undertaken by a male supervisor. So please, how would you define abrasive conduct? Signed, sacked at 17 because I asked my 50-something year old boss not to stand over me looking down the front of my top and subsequently given a reference which said that I was "strident, abrasive, rude." when this was the only time I ever spoke up in that office to say anything less than positive.

  • dogninjablak

    Tranies are not real women and men do not treat them as such in the work place. They have a different perspective not the actual perspective of the so called new gender. Having a procedure and taking hormones doesn't make them privy to the physiological perspective of the gender, as it has evolved in concert with the physiology of the specific genders over a very long period of time. Most of the time it is known that they are trans, usually visually obvious in male to females ..they are probably treated even worse than actual women.

  • Rick Rutledge

    I'm guessing you did not read the article, but just jumped to a conclusion. If you read the article, you'd find that FTM transgendered persons are generally treated more like men than when they were women.

    “People who don't know I am transgendered treat me with much more respect,” he says. He was more carefully listened to and his authority less frequently questioned. He stopped being interrupted in meetings. At one conference, another scientist said, "Ben gave a great seminar today—but then his work is so much better than his sister's." (The scientist didn't know Ben and Barbara were the same person.)

  • dogninjablak

    That article is about the perspective of trannies who are not actual women. They have other issues to contend with, mainly that most people think that surgical procedures to re-assign gender is crazy. Just because they had the equipment cut off and take some hormones doesn't mean they are privy to the psychology of the gender , that has evolved in concert with the physiology for millions of years.AND most of the time it is fairly obvious what they are hence they are treated much differently by men than actual women. So shut up

  • Jane Highwater

    The final sentence sums it all up, doesn't it? White male privilege. If he actually read the article, which I doubt, he didn't want to believe what the people quoted said. His reality is everything, don't you know?

  • Simon Turner

    Not saying that it is something I aspire to be, but I have recieved the term abrasive in Annual reviews. I am most definitely a male.

  • jefair2

    Not just women... And sometimes it is good to be a jerk... depends on your position and to whom you are being a jerk.

    I have met my fair share of both men and women who are like that, I wouldn't say it is one side favored over the other... so if it is showing up in the performance reviews I got nothing for that... maybe it is the field I work in... who knows?

  • jefair2

    Clearly not just reserved for women. Not saying that it is used correctly in all cases and gender bias is certainly a real thing... but being "abrasive" cost this guy the chance of him being the Chairman of the Federal Reserve (which, if you know anything, is quite a powerful position...)

    I agree with some of the other comments that it could be that women have not better learned how to be assertive without being a jerk about it, which is certainly a failure in society to teach women how to handle leadership positions... or perhaps something is (wrongfully so) engrained in the way women are raised to cause them to feel like they have to be a jerk to get something done.

    I wouldn't classify most women as abrasive in the workforce, but sometimes it is good to be a jerk... depends on whom you are being a jerk to.

  • rlicker

    Oh my gosh! This comment is so depressing. Point of article missed. Perhaps, just perhaps, the women described as "abrasive" were not actually behaving any differently than their male counterparts. Maybe they weren't being "jerks" as you say, or maybe their male counterparts are jerks, too, and no one feels the need to say so on paper. Oy.

  • rlicker

    PS: Please, please share your comment with a female friend. Let us know how that goes.

  • rlicker

    Reply to Donnie: To flip your comment on its head, sir: How much of this is men (and women) not being exposed to assertive women when they're growing up?

    I think I am quite capable of being assertive without being abrasive (and am aware of how to do so). Social skills for the win! I am confident in my female peers' ability to do so as well. I think the point here is that men and women can do the exact same thing in the workplace and yet the action is perceived differently.

    Sincerely, 32 year old female (with a doctorate thank you) (intending to be a bit abrasive as she is justifiably annoyed)

  • That's a fair question, too, although I think it's more of a corollary than flipping my comment on its head.

    Assuming the phenomenon of assertive women being "legitimately" perceived as more abrasive exists, it's probably explained by a combination of my original hypothesis and yours—they are actually more abrasive due to less practice, and others' reactions are poorer, because of less exposure. In either case, "training" would play a much bigger role than conscious prejudice or lack of talent.

    On your second point, be careful—the plural of anecdote is not science. I know plenty of women who are successful and assertive without being abrasive, too. But if the data shows that as a whole, women in the workplace are being reacted to differently than men, we have to examine trends and underlying broad explanations, not individual examples.