The XX Factor

Managers Tell Women in Tech They Are “Abrasive” and Need to “Step Back” to “Let Others Shine”

“You’re doing great. Just be a little less of everything.”

Photo by Pressmaster/Shutterstock

Kieran Snyder had heard about women in the tech word being judged more harshly than their male colleagues for the same traits and wanted to know “how often this perception of female abrasiveness undermines women’s careers.” So she asked a group of men and women in tech to share their performance reviews with her, without telling them what the study was for. “The question I wanted to answer was: Did review tone or content differ based on the employee’s gender,” Snyder writes in Fortune. It turns out that not only did gender matter, it appears to have mattered a lot, enough to shock even me, a jaded feminist. 

Snyder collected 141 reviews from men and 107 reviews from women. While the reviews were almost all positive—which is why people were willing to share them, Snyder guesses—women were much more likely to receive criticism. “When breaking the reviews down by gender of the person evaluated, 58.9% of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback,” Snyder writes. “87.9% of the reviews received by women did.”

But when Snyder classified the kinds of criticism offered, that’s when things truly got stark. Most of the criticism men got was “heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop.” So, constructive. Women got that too, but they also were told, frequently, to quiet down and step back. “You can come across as abrasive sometimes,” reads one review. “Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine,” suggests another. This type of criticism was almost exclusively aimed at women:

This kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

These findings track with previous research that shows that people tend to be more generous towards men than women in all sorts of ways in the workplace. Women who talk as much as their male colleagues are seen as too gabby. Men can ask for raises without a social penalty, but women who do so are seen as unpleasant. And it’s not just about assertiveness or other traits observed in the workplace. When a researcher gave two groups of subjects resumes to evaluate that were identical, except one was attributed to “John” and one to “Jennifer,” “John” was offered an average $4,000 more a year for the same job as “Jennifer.”

A few more examples: Men who ask for flex time for family reasons are more likely to get it than women, perhaps (definitely) because managers are more primed to worry that women are going to be a burden, always asking for more more more. Men (white men, anyway) are even given more credit when they show commitment to diversity than women and people of color. There’s a huge halo effect that follows men around the office, just for being men. 

So what can be done? While some biases can be combatted with blind hiring practices and aggressive recruitment of women, performance reviews inherently depend on the manager knowing the person being reviewed personally. Managers need to be mindful of the fact that we’ve all been soaking in a culture that teaches us to be much more judgmental of women than men and that they almost surely have absorbed that bias unconsciously.