I recently conducted some research on gender differences in the workplace and learned that the same behaviors that were praised in men were often criticized in women. In particular, women who were more assertive, or confident in expressing their views, were often perceived negatively. Assertive men, on the other hand, were viewed as strong and competent.
A colleague pointed me in the direction of this Fortune piece by Kieran Snyder, who had a linguist do some number-crunching to determine if gender plays a role in the type of feedback an employee receives at review time.
Snyder asked men and women in the technology field if they would be willing to share their performance reviews for a study. Assuming that only strong performers would be willing to share, Snyder was most interested in looking at the critical feedback that these strong performers had received and whether the review tone or content differed based on employee gender.
Snyder collected 248 reviews from 180 people, 105 men and 75 women at 28 large, mid-size, and small companies. About 71 percent of the reviews contained critical feedback. However, critical feedback was not distributed evenly by gender.
When breaking the reviews down by gender of the person evaluated, 59 percent of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback, but 88 percent of the reviews received by women did. The men were given constructive suggestions. The women were also given constructive suggestions – and told to pipe down.
The critical feedback men received was heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop. A few examples:
“Constructive feedback on your performance as a feature crew tester can be summed up by saying that you still have some skills to continue to develop.”
“Hone your strategies for guiding your team and developing their skills. It is important to set proper guidance around priorities and to help as needed in designs and product decisions.”
Women receive this kind of constructive feedback too. But, according to Snyder, the women’s reviews included a sharper element that was absent from the men’s:
“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 feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.”
Yikes! The women’s comments, as Snyder observed, bordered on criticizing personality as opposed to performance. And this type of feedback showed up in twice in the critical reviews received by men, and a whopping 71 times in the 94 critical reviews received by women.
Words like bossy, abrasive, strident, and aggressive were used to describe women’s behaviors when they lead; words like emotional and irrational described their behaviors when they objected. All of these words showed up at least twice in the women’s review text Snyder reviewed. Abrasive alone was used 17 times to describe 13 different women. Among these words, only aggressive was present in men’s reviews at all. It showed up three times, twice with an exhortation to be more of it.
Interestingly, the gender of the manager did not impact the feedback. Both male and female managers were tougher (meaner?) to their female employees.
Unconscious bias is certainly on HR’s radar, and more organizations are taking the positive step of reviewing rating scores and rankings for systemic bias. However, Snyder rightfully points out that we need to do more. After all, just because a female employee receives a promotion-worthy review doesn’t mean that unnecessarily harsh comments don’t negatively impact her career, self-esteem, or engagement. Snyder’s informal study clearly illustrates the need to pay closer attention to the language we’re using in reviews.