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 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

Get The Best Stories In Leadership Every Day.

[Photo by Flickr user See-ming Lee]

Add New Comment

202 Comments

  • 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

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2013/09/23/larry-summers-bad-rap-abrasive-personalities-are-workplace/a4BmGeICwODSSvvffonTmL/story.html

    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

    http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2013/09/23/larry-summers-bad-rap-abrasive-personalities-are-workplace/a4BmGeICwODSSvvffonTmL/story.html

    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.

  • rlicker

    But once again, I would assert (pun intended) that you should be careful in your assumption that women who are intending to be assertive are, objectively speaking, actually more abrasive than their assertive male counterparts.

  • Yes, I totally agree. We can't assume it's true. But we also can't assume it's false.

    Both are assumptions based on anecdotes and individual experience. It may not even be objectively knowable, actually.

    But we can't have a discussion (or do a study) starting from the assumption that there is NOT an objective difference between the way women assert themselves and men do, if that hasn't been actually proven. We have to have the conversation while open to both possibilities.

  • Lars Eighner

    What is missing here is any mention of how -- or if -- the reviews were evaluated by judges who did not know whether the reveiws were given to men or women. Sure, it would be a hassle redacting the pronouns and assembling a panel. But that would make it science, not a bloviating opinion piece.

  • This is very interesting.

    How much of it is because of sexism, and how much of it is because women aren't trained to be assertive (esp. toward men) when they're growing up, so they don't know how to do it without being "abrasive?"

    If this second reason has any merit, it isn't an indictment of women, it's an indictment of society. But at least it gives us somewhere to start in an attempt to fix the problem: give little girls more leadership roles.

    Of course, giving this question serious thought means assuming that women are, in fact, more abrasive when being assertive. I don't know if that's true, but it seems like assuming the opposite is just as flawed from a scientific point of view.

  • 'Abrasive' is a female character description. There are several of these. You would never call a woman 'burly' for instance; nor a man 'shrill'. This seems to surprise you.

  • Archie Caine

    And as my earlier comment failed to post, here it is again. Abrasive is not a female word either. Sandpaper is abrasive. A nail file is abrasive. These are not gendered things, it is simply an adjective.

  • Archie Caine

    Also if a mans voice was shrill - kind of grating and high pitched - you would say he was shrill. And if a woman was burly - well built and muscular - you would call her burly. These are not gendered words, and your command of the english language really concerns me.