Despite the progress we’ve made in recent years, there remains an insidious undercurrent of bias that many women face when being evaluated for their work. The performance review, that annual ritual where we’re all measured against a seemingly objective yardstick, has been found to be anything but unbiased when it comes to gender.
A friend of mine, a talented female tech executive, recently shared her experience of receiving performance feedback that focused more on her “emotional reactions” and “need to be more friendly” rather than her technical achievements. This story, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. In fact, many women in tech have been on the receiving end of unsolicited advice from male colleagues and bosses, offering gems like:
“You should smile more. You’ll seem more approachable.”
“Don’t be so aggressive. It’s intimidating.”
“Your communication style is off-putting. Be more likable.”
These comments blur the line between evaluating job performance and judging women based on outdated gender norms.
In an article published by Fast Company, linguist Kieran Snyder examined 248 performance reviews from 28 companies, including large technology corporations and small startups. The study found that critical feedback was given to women at a much higher ratio than men – 87.9% of the reviews received by women contained critical feedback, while only 58.9% of men’s reviews did. More strikingly, the word “abrasive” appeared 17 times to describe 13 different women, but was never used in men’s reviews!
The feedback women receive frequently comments on their personality, communication style and perceived character flaws rather than focusing on job-related skills and performance. Words like “judgmental,” and needing to “watch your tone” appear routinely in women’s reviews but not men’s.
The Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research discovered that women receive significantly more critical feedback than men due to ingrained gender stereotypes. The Stanford study highlighted a plethora of ways in which women were judged differently than men. Emotional language, assertiveness, confidence, communication style, work-life balance, and even appearance all became battlegrounds for women in tech, and the consequences were dire. Women found themselves labeled as “too emotional” or “not assertive enough,” which, in a cruel twist of fate, could lead to them being perceived as “too aggressive” when they did assert themselves. This double bind, where women are deemed “too soft” or “too aggressive,” limits their career advancement, particularly in leadership roles.
Intersectionality further complicates the experiences of women in tech, with women of color, LGBTQ+ individuals, and those with disabilities facing additional layers of bias and discrimination.
The research is clear in its implications. When performance reviews focus on personality over actual job performance, it cultivates discrimination and unfairly stalls women’s careers. The language we use to describe women versus men, even when well-intentioned, can reinforce stereotypes and exacerbate inequities in the system. If we aim to build truly inclusive work environments where people are evaluated based solely on merit, we must challenge these preconceptions and implicit biases within ourselves and our organizations.
It is not enough to blame managers or hiring committees—all of us must reflect on why abrasive is a criticism saved almost exclusively for women, and why likeability factors more prominently in our assessments of female colleagues.
The effects of gender bias in performance reviews are far-reaching, leading to a lack of diversity in decision-making and a shortage of female role models for future generations. Addressing this issue requires a collective effort from everyone in the tech industry. Men can educate themselves on the impacts of their feedback and create supportive environments, while women can seek out networks, celebrate their accomplishments, and serve as role models.
For women in tech, the struggle is not just about overcoming the unconscious bias in performance reviews; it’s about pushing back against the unsolicited and misguided advice that too often permeates workplace interactions. By addressing these seemingly small issues, we can start to chip away at the larger barriers that prevent women from reaching their full potential.
To all those reading this who can relate, it’s important to remember that your worth is not defined by the opinions of others. As you navigate the challenges of gender bias, remember to celebrate your accomplishments, seek out supportive networks, and be the role model that future generations can look up to.
I remain hopeful that we can change the script and create a more inclusive and equitable tech industry. With openness and effort, we can work to change these patterns and ensure women receive the same judgment, feedback and opportunities as equally talented men. But first we must acknowledge the feedback bias, and how it has shaped women’s work experiences from the start.
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