Are You ‘Abrasive’? Why It Matters That Bosses Describe Men and Women Differently

Let’s say you have before you two performance reviews. Both are for high performers, and both contain critical as well as positive feedback. One describes the reviewed as “aggressive”; the other as “abrasive.” Which review belongs to a man, and which to a woman?


(Photo Credit: Keoni Cabral/Flickr)

As riddles go, this one is a gimme. We all know, anecdotally, that women are penalized at work for behaviors that win accolades for men. Now, thanks to linguist and entrepreneur Kieran Snyder, we have some science to back up the stories.

At Fortune, Snyder details her statistical analysis of descriptive language contained in 248 reviews submitted to her by both men and women. The usual cautions apply to a small-sample analysis like this one: the reviews were submitted voluntarily (and thus, as Snyder says, presumably by strong performers). There’s no way to correct for a possibility that women might be more willing than men, for whatever reason, to share negative feedback. And the reviews came from tech companies (28 of them, of various sizes) so it’s possible that another industry might find different results from a similar study.

Still, even taking all that into account, what Snyder found was eye-opening.

“Men are given constructive suggestions,” writes Snyder. “Women are given constructive suggestions — and told to pipe down.”

Out of the total 248 reviews, 177 included critical feedback. Men, by and large, received suggestions about developing skills, setting priorities, and honing communication strategies. Women received those suggestions, but also critiques that were less constructive and detailed, and more critical of their demeanor and ambition, such as:

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

“Your peers sometimes feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.”

“The presentation ultimately went well. But along the way, we discovered many areas for improvement. You would have had an easier time if you had been less judgmental about R—’s contributions from the beginning.”

This kind of criticism, which is concentrated on personality and not skills, showed up only twice in the 83 critical reviews of male employees. Female employees who received negative reviews saw critiques like these in 71 out of 94 cases.

The exact impact of these differences in word choice is hard to quantify, but we know that language can influence behavior, as well as describe it. If you were an executive thumbing through a sheaf of performance evaluations, whom would you select for promotion — the aggressive go-getter, or the abrasive shrew?

It appears that no one is immune to perpetuating bias. Snyder found that these critiques were consistent across all company sizes and in both male and female managers. It’s likely a systemic problem, one that managers may be perpetuating without even realizing that they’re doing it — and therein lies the solution. If managers become aware of the bias, they can try to overcome it, and judge workers on their merits, independent of gender.

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