New research shows that women are more heavily criticised by their bosses in performance reviews – with negative words such as abrasive, emotional and irrational taking centre stage. Claire Cohen reports
Ambitious. Bossy. Over the past few months we’ve heard a lot about these words and their negative connotations when applied to women at work.
Sheryl Sandberg and Beyoncé spearheaded a campaign to ban ‘bossy’, arguing that it was a negative word with which to brand young women. Model Cara Delevingne has complained that she’s encountered criticism and jealousy, simply for being ambitious. While Madonna has questioned why we consider it such a dirty word.
Now, there’s a new term to add to this growing dictionary of doom: abrasive.
It appears in a new study into the language of performance reviews, conducted by Fortune .
Curious as to whether gender plays a role in in the sort of feedback employees received from their bosses, the US magazine collected the reviews of men and women in the tech industry (undoubtedly male dominated).
The results are startling. The author collected 248 reviews from 180 people in 28 different companies: 105 were men and 75 were women. Of those 248 reviews, 177 (about 71 per cent) contained critical feedback: 58.9 per cent of the men’s reviews and 87.9 per cent of women’s.
The study then looked at the sort of criticism being levelled at each sex (note: the gender of the reviewer had no impact at all). Fortune found that while men received constructive criticism, women were basically ‘told to pipe down’.
Men are told that they can ‘develop their skills’ and ‘achieve more’. Women do receive this sort of feedback, but they also come in for harsher personality criticism. Just two out of 83 male reviews contain advice which amounts to, says Fortune, ‘Watch your tone! Step back! Stop being so judgmental!’ It features in 71/94 women’s reviews.
And what about ‘abrasive’?
The word – which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ; ‘Showing little concern for the feelings of others; harsh’ – appears 17 times, to describe 13 different women.
It doesn’t appear in the men’s reviews once (although ‘aggressive’ does, three times – with exhortations for the recipients to be more so).
Women are also called bossy (surprise everyone!), strident, emotional and irrational.
Of course, this isn’t a scientific study exactly. But what’s clear is that women are on the receiving end of less-constructive, more personal and, frankly, stereotypical criticism from their managers. And the examples given here are those the participants let through – we have no idea whether they removed anything worse before handing their reviews over for analysis.
The author, Kieran Synder, writes, “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. But as a leader in tech, I’m aghast at how closely under our noses we let this live.”
Indeed, it shows, not only, how negativity against professional women is accepted unquestioningly – but how important it is that we keep on keeping on. And how vital it is that we reclaim these negative terms and use them for good (or, at least, wear them out until they lose any potent meaning).
After all, the word ‘abrasive’ comes from the Latin noun, ‘abrade’: To scrape or wear away by friction, or erosion.
What better description of the uphill task that still faces working women today. One thing’s for sure – only by pushing harder and pushing together, will we wear away at these outdated modes of thinking.
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