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In work reviews, women are criticized for personality rather than performance

Reuters/Brendan McDermid
The problem with leaning in.
By Max Nisen
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

There are countless explanations for the extreme paucity of women in the top ranks of companies, in technology and beyond. A study of performance reviews by linguist and Amazon executive Kieran Snyder for Fortune reveals that even in strongly positive reviews, women are much more likely to receive critical feedback. And the feedback is often about their personality, instead of the quality of their work to a truly disproportionate degree.

The reviews shared with Snyder by professionals were generally good, as they were provided voluntarily. But women’s reviews were much more likely to include critical wording:

The criticism was much more likely to include negative personality criticism, to give advice to be less assertive or bossy, and to include words like “abrasive”:

“Abrasive” was used 17 times to describe 13 different women. “Bossy,” “strident,” and “aggressive” make their appearance, and behavior is described as emotional and irrational. The word “aggressive” showed up three times in men’s reviews, but was listed as a positive in two of those instances. The gender of the manager giving the review didn’t make a difference.

Here’s an example of the kind of “constructive” feedback that a woman received in the sample of performance reviews:

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

It’s a limited sample, but a pretty disturbing result, bolstered most recently by former executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, who lost her job due to her management style and conflict with other editors rather than performance, according to the paper’s publisher.

Being assertive is usually considered a positive for executives. And the perceived lack of those qualities is constantly said to hold women back—in negotiations, in applying for jobs, and as managers. But women are frequently discouraged from displaying those exact qualities, ones often seen as positives in men. It’s a reminder that language matters, and an example of the disadvantage women face rising up the corporate ladder. It also helps explain the sorts of management gaps we see in technology and beyond:


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