Abrasive. Bitchy. Irrational. Bossy. Strident. These are common adjectives used in the workplace to describe women who lead groups or speak their mind. Men? They get described in much less loaded and personal terms like "impatient" or "assertive."
This isn't just an anecdotal tale of workplace inequality. A new report for Fortune Magazine shows in quantifiable terms that women are much more likely to get criticized at work. And more often than not, the criticism is personal, rather than constructive feedback on how to improve performance.
It's what researcher Kieran Snyder calls "negative feedback" in performance reviews, which attack personal traits like how aggressive an employee is perceived to be. Men are more likely to get what Snyder calls "constructive feedback" like being told to slow down and focus on details to improve performance. In simpler terms, men more often get feedback on their job performance rather than on how the act of the performance made others feel. Men are told how to improve and grow professionally. Women are told to be quiet.
Snyder conducted the research by asking her colleagues in tech — both men and women — to submit their performance reviews so she could look for patterns. She looked at 248 reviews in all from 180 different tech professionals which included 105 men and 75 women from various companies of all sizes.
Of the reviews Snyder looked at, only two men received negative feedback, compared with the 82 men who only received constructive feedback. Women, on the other hand, overwhelmingly received negative feedback rather than constructive. Of the women reviewed, 71 received negative feedback, while only 23 received only constructive feedback.
Also interestingly, there was no difference in the kind or quantity of criticism if the supervisor doing the evaluation was male or female. Telling women about their faults seems to be natural no matter what your gender.
For women trying to earn a living this is hardly earth-shattering social science. Heck, I'm only one woman, and I've been called strident, aggressive, told I was a bitch, and was asked if I worked as an exotic dancer in the evenings. All comments from male supervisors. And those are the only ones I can remember.
As a society, it's no secret we are really hard on women and girls. We beat ourselves up. We show little mercy to other women. No wonder everyone else picks up on our cues and feels entitled to tell us all the stuff we could be doing better.
There's also the issue that women in public spaces are viewed as the property of others. It's why men feel free to hoot, catcall and say all kinds of awful stuff to women who simply have the misfortune of stepping in their path. Women aren't people to be treated with respect in their minds, they're just objects that are transferred from one man's ownership to the next.
And this isn't just a men's issue. If it was, the women supervisors in the Fortune study would have shown more fairness and objectivity. They didn't.
"As a woman in tech who has been called all of these things before, there is some validation in confirming with data that the pattern is real," Snyder says. "But as a leader in tech, I'm aghast at how closely under our noses we let this live."
So the next time you are on the receiving end of a review that veers too far off into personality attack, try asking questions to get a clearer view of where the criticism is coming from. If you happen to be just too outspoken for the taste of one supervisor, there is little you're going to be able to do long-term to change that. But developing a thick skin and reasoning with people who might not be altogether reasonable is always the best place to start.
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