Well, burn my bacon! Via Amanda Marcotte at Slate, we read of an informal study of managerial performance reviews in the tech industry by Kieran Snyder at Fortune that concludes that of the participants who volunteered copies of their performance reviews, women receive far more critical feedback:
The first thing I wanted to understand is how many reviews included critical wording in the first place. These were almost exclusively strong reviews, so I wasn’t sure. My own reviews have all contained critical feedback, both those I’ve received and those I’ve given. But I wasn’t sure what to expect.
105 men submitted 141 reviews, and 75 women submitted 107 reviews. Of the full set of 248 reviews, 177—about 71%—contained critical feedback. However, critical feedback was not distributed evenly by gender.
When breaking the reviews down by gender of the person evaluated, 58.9% of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback. 87.9% of the reviews received by women did.
Next, the study demonstrated that the critical feedback women and men received was very different in kind. Women were overwhelmingly the recipients of negative feedback focused on their personality and their willingness to take credit for their work:
Men are given constructive suggestions. Women are given constructive suggestions – and told to pipe down.
. . . . In the 177 reviews where people receive critical feedback, men and women receive different kinds. The critical feedback men receive is heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop. A few examples:
“Constructive feedback on your performance as a feature crew tester can be summed up by saying that you still have some skills to continue to develop.”
“Hone your strategies for guiding your team and developing their skills. It is important to set proper guidance around priorities and to help as needed in designs and product decisions.”
“There were a few cases where it would have been extremely helpful if you had gone deeper into the details to help move an area forward.”
“Take time to slow down and listen. You would achieve even more.”
Women receive this kind of constructive feedback too. But the women’s reviews include another, sharper element that is absent from the men’s:
“You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.”
“Your peers sometimes feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.”
“The presentation ultimately went well. But along the way, we discovered many areas for improvement. You would have had an easier time if you had been less judgmental about R—‘s contributions from the beginning.”
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.
That’s right: negative personality criticism appeared in 75% of all of the women’s evaluations. It appeared in 2.5% of the men’s evaluations. Also sadly unsurprising: the sex of the reviewer made no difference–women, like men, were much likelier to aim sharp criticism at women, and to offer mostly constructive criticism of male employees. Snyder’s results track with what trans people report, both F-to-M and M-to-F, as explored in this excellent article by Jessica Nordell at The New Republic: as men, their ideas and opinions were taken more seriously, and their expertise was assumed rather than questioned.
Marcotte’s blog post and Snyder’s study are careful to localize these results to the tech industry, but I think they’d find these results neatly replicated across all professional workplaces. Having served on my college’s tenure review committee, I have seen almost the same differences in men’s vs. women’s tenure review letters. These letters are different instruments than the performance evaluations Snyder discusses, so the comparison is not exact. (I wish now that I had taken notes, or at least kept count of the different kinds of tenure review letters in men’s vs. women’s files, but I’m not a sociologist, I’m a historian.)
However, in the four years I served on that committee, I observed that even in positive reviews recommending tenure, women’s research portfolios would still be picked apart, and reviewers took the time and trouble to rate and rank each and every article and book for its rigor, its creativity, and its impact. Men’s dossiers rarely received little of the same article-by-article, book-by-book scrutiny. When in fact a male candidate had some evident weaknesses in his record, such as having no single-authored articles and having only his Ph.D. advisor as his co-author!–reviewers would go out of their way to explain why this obvious weakness was in fact evidence of his awesomeness. And yes, it was female as well as male reviewers who were hard on women candidates and excused weaknesses in men candidates for tenure.
It wasn’t every man’s file vs. every women’s file that I could see these differences, but there was clearly a pattern: even in letters that were overwhelmingly positive, letters for women just had to have some comments criticizing the quality or quantity of their work, and letters for men whose records in my view had clear weaknesses either in the quantity or quality (or both), reviewers went out of their way to explain away or excuse them.
Something else I observed is that in my years on the committee, only women candidates had letters in their files that were by professors who were professionally envious and/or had other axes to grind. (I’ve seen at least one letter like this in a man’s file in my department, so this may just be the luck of the draw; however, it may be a side-effect of the kind of skepticism and scrutiny that I observed in the letters on behalf of women candidates.)
My service on this committee is a good example that committee work can be useful and important to you and to your institution. Yes, there were other things I probably wished I were doing in the moment besides reading the tenure files of people outside my department, but I learned a great deal about the climate that we all work in, and I’ve worked to counter the negative reviews in women’s files.
The experience also has taught me how to write an effective tenure review letter. If I’m going to say that someone’s work is good in the hopes that they get tenure, then it’s not really my business to give a down-and-dirty, blow-by-blow critique of their published work because it’s too late for anyone to do anything about it. Tenure review letters are not reviews for draft articles or manuscripts solicited by a press; they in fact the instruments that help decide who gets tenure and who instead gets fired. Why would a department or college want to know that you were underwhelmed by a few articles if they want to tenure their colleague? Yes, we all have our opinions, but you have to think about how that opinion might be used up the line, don’t you?
My work on the college T&P committee also taught me that I only want to review the dossiers of people I think should be tenured. I don’t want everyone tenured, but I’m also not going to shank someone. There’s plenty of bitterness and discontent in academia. In fact, someone is sharpening a toothbrush handle right now.