Gendered Code Words: Recent Study Examines the “Abrasiveness Trap”

When Jill Abramson was fired from her position as Executive Editor of The New York Times a few months ago, the Times denied that gender had anything to do with it. They pointed to issues with her management style; apparently Abramson was “bossy” and “pushy” – labels that are rarely assigned to male executives. As we’ve discussed on this blog, this double standard – lauding men who are aggressive and assertive, while deriding women who display those same traits – is hardly new. Indeed, a recent report illustrates just how pervasive such gender stereotyping is.

For her study of the tech industry, Kieran Snyder collected 248 performance reviews from 180 people from 28 different tech companies. Her goal: to determine whether the tone or content of performance reviews differed based on the employee’s gender.

The results revealed a stark gender-based pattern. Snyder found that the critical feedback received by men was “heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop.” For example: “Take time to slow down and listen. You would achieve even more.” Women received such constructive feedback, too; however, their reviews were filled with “another, sharper element that is absent from the men’s.” One female employee was warned, “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.” Other women were met with similarly personal criticism. For example: “Your peers sometimes feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.” Or: “You would have had an easier time [with the presentation] if you had been less judgmental about R—‘s contributions from the beginning.”

Snyder observes, “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.” Such warnings were typically conveyed through the use of gendered code words:

Words like bossy, abrasive, strident, and aggressive are used to describe women’s behaviors when they lead; words like emotional and irrational describe their   behaviors when they object. All of these words show up at least twice in the women’s review   text I reviewed, some much more often. Abrasive alone is used 17 times to describe 13 different     women. Among these words, only aggressive shows up in men’s reviews at all. It shows up three   times, twice with an exhortation to be more of it.

Of course, such stereotyping is not confined to the tech world. Michelle Obama, Sonia Sotomayor, and Hillary Clinton, in addition to the aforementioned Abramson, are just a few of the powerful women who have been saddled with some variation of the “bossy” label. The double standard is so ubiquitous that it even inspired a “Ban Bossy” campaign (launched by Sheryl Sandberg of “Lean In” fame).

Studies such as Snyder’s call to mind one of the critiques leveled against “Lean In” – that it places demands on individual women (e.g., exhorting them to be more assertive) while discounting the persistence of systemic discrimination.  How effective is “leaning in” when the same directness and assertiveness that helps men get ahead all too often backfires for women? In an article published earlier this year, Professor Joan Williams of UC Hastings’ Center for WorkLife Law suggests that, as long as gender stereotypes persist, many professional women will find themselves performing a delicate balancing act:

My interviews with 127 highly successful women show that more straightforward strategies can backfire. While plenty of glass ceilings have been shattered, most good jobs – from senator to scientist, comic to chief executive – are still seen as requiring what have traditionally been perceived as masculine qualities. Lawyers are aggressive; chief executives are decisive; techies are nerds; comics are obsessed with sex. So women have to behave in “masculine” ways to be seen as competent.

One problem: Women are still expected to be feminine.

Of course, if you’re too feminine, you’re perceived as incompetent. But if you’re too masculine, you’re seen as difficult to work with.

To get around this double bind, Williams notes that many high-level women practice what she calls “gender judo” – using traditional feminine stereotypes to propel themselves forward, or “doing something masculine – such as negotiating – but in a feminine vein.”

Studies such as Snyder’s and Williams’ underscore how imperative it is to develop greater self-awareness about the words we use and the biases they reveal.  As Snyder notes, HR should also devote greater scrutiny to the use of gendered code words in reviews. Such labels are not innocuous. For every Clinton or Sotomayor who manages to break through, there are countless women who are marginalized, penalized, and even terminated for daring to be as assertive as their male peers.

Siham Nurhussein

Siham Nurhussein is a lawyer. She is also an amazing person.

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