This just in: Men favored over women in employee evaluations and tenure review letters

cowgirlcomingrightupWell, 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.

22 thoughts on “This just in: Men favored over women in employee evaluations and tenure review letters

  1. So not surprising. I’ve noticed, overall, that these reactions are automatic and hard to address.

    Women are supposed to be superlative at the job (otherwise a man would’ve been better) while also being perfectly “womanly” (otherwise, why not hire a man?). Double-extra bonus points for studying something that’s inherently not as relevant as a man’s research would’ve been (even when they’re researching in the same fields). It’s a Catch-22 times two, it seems.

    Guess I’ll see first-hand when the responses to my promotion application (to full) come in. . . .


  2. Yeah, there’s definitely–or with only the rarest of exceptions–no equivalent of the “revise and resubmit” at the tenure review level. I’d love to see at least one of those “no articles as evidence of his awesomeness” letters on a wikileak now. I’ve heard this kind of argument made around a faux-hoggany committee table, but not sure I’ve ever seen one get into a tenure rec. letter.

    One thing about the tech industry is that it would never think about letting someone in the app development department “rate-and-rank” the routine work product of someone in the server farm siting department. At least not in an annual performance review, or so I would think.


  3. I knew in a general way that women were at a disadvantage, but holy jumping catfish, Historiann! The policing of tone and perceived aggressiveness in the article was bad enough, but your experience on the T & P committee was an eye-opener. I had no idea that women’s dossiers would be subjected to that kind of picky review, although it doesn’t surprise me that evidence of awesomeness for male candidates would include that kind of “it’s not a bug–it’s a feature!” logic.

    I wonder, too, if there’s a double-edged service sword here, as in women might be faulted if they don’t have enough (“not a team player”) but faulted as in “she should have done more scholarship” if there’s too much. Having just turned down yet another opportunity to be a Handmaiden to Greatness, doing all the work and getting none of the credit, I’m willing to bet that a lot of that commentary about “abrasive personality” has to do with women who said no to service.


  4. On the service: of course there’s a double-standard, undine! To take a page out of your book, it’s a feature, not a bug!!!

    Although it’s depressing, this information is quite freeing. They’re going to say we’re undeserving bitches no matter what. We don’t control how we’re perceived or evaluated, so we might as well just let it rip and do what we want to.


  5. Wow, that is terribly depressing. I’m at least glad to hear that you’ve noticed these discrepancies in your own committee work, and tried to work against them, instead of taking them at face value as pure reflections of individual merit or lack. I hope people on the ground like you can help make others in decision-making positions more conscious. Studies help to quantify general trends, but people saying “yes, I have observed this in our field, too!” are absolutely necessary to counter academic exceptionalism.

    (Freeing, though? Being free to be unemployed is cold comfort!)


  6. Very timely-and disconcerting. I just submitted my list of external reviewers to my chair in phase of one of my tenure application this year!


  7. Ugh, this is so depressing (though I suppose it means I shouldn’t put too much effort into worrying about those future letters since they’ll inevitably be somewhat critical no matter what I do or don’t do).

    It strikes me that it would be interesting to compare the tenure (or, for that matter, any recommendation/review letters) by the same person for men and women. I wonder how an individual letter writer’s style changes — I mean, it’s sort of odd that one person would do a line-by-line review of a woman’s CV but be general about a man’s. And yet that seems to happen. Do people think they’re *helping* women by subjecting them to that level of scrutiny (if I evaluate everything, no one can say I didn’t offer a comprehensive review)? Many details to ponder.

    It also makes me wonder about the role of letters in tenure cases that fail. Sadly, I know more women who have not gotten tenure (in all cases I’m aware of, the women had excellent, well-received jobs and recovered by getting stellar next jobs) but I know more men whom I’d consider weak cases (mediocre research and/or poor teaching). Aside from the obvious gender divide, I’m not sure how to account for the troubling difference, and it makes me wonder how many letters screwed over women or boosted men.


  8. I am watching a friend/colleague go through some singularly bad treatment and the gender dynamics are just screamingly loud, and yes, she gets told not infrequently to “watch her tone.” (She just posted this story to her FB). It’s so maddening to see such blatantly obvious gender issues and to have no way to address them. It’s one of the major down sides of being in a field that is so heavily dominated by women — the sexism is there, but it’s harder to call out since, what are we going to do to solve it, hire more women?


  9. ej and rachel: I’m sorry to stoke your anxieties now.

    sophylou: please tell your friend to see this post & read the Slate and Fortune articles that inspired it. It won’t change anything about the dynamics in her department and college, but it might make her feel less isolated or that she’s somehow doin’ it wrong.

    Anonymous grad: when I wrote that this information should be seen as “freeing,” please note that no one in the linked articles or in my story lost a job or wasn’t recommended for tenure. That’s the crazy thing: the women whose tenure files I was commenting on were all recommended for tenure, most of them strongly and enthusiastically by the tenure reviewers!

    The important difference at stake here is not that the women lost their jobs; the evidence & anecdotes here all pertain to people who received positive evaluations, but most reviewers found it impossible not to include negative feedback or comments about personality in the women’s reviews. Whereas men can get winning reviews with little or no negative comments, almost no women were evaluated like that.

    So that’s why I say this information should be liberating. There’s no evidence in this data that women’s professional lives are imperiled permanently or irrevocably by these evaluations; just that we’re subjected to pervasive scrutiny that probably serves to limit our access to top leadership positions. This is still a big problem! But these articles furnish useful information for managers and colleagues who want to do something about the glass ceiling/leaky pipeline problems we’re talking about.

    This is news we can use, every time we write a peer evaluation of a colleague, a tenure review letter, or even letters of recommendation for our students as well as staff evaluations. And this is something that women as well as men need to do, as the Fortune story indicates: women as much as men are perpetuators of this double-standard for women employees (and in my experience, in tenure review letters).


  10. You’ve inspired me to go look at t & p letters I’ve written over the years and see if I do this–I assume not, good feminist and all, but I don’t think anyone sets out to discriminate in this way. The thing is, of course, I get asked to write for way more women than men, working in women’s history and all.


  11. Oh, I so want to forward this study to our dean. I probably will. He will no doubt say, or at least think, that I’m being a pushy woman. Actually, maybe I should ask a male colleague to forward it, who will then be praised for his sensitivity to equity in the workplace 🙂

    I wonder about the emotional impact of the accumulation, over many years, of these critiques of one’s personality. They could certainly be considered micro-aggressions. And the effects of microaggressions over time, sez Wikipedia, include feeling ” frustrated, powerless, emotionally detached” and that women in particular “may become depressed, develop low self-esteem”. For those inclined towards depression and self-doubt in the first place, this just reinforces the negative feedback loop.


  12. loumac: yep. All women are doing it rong and should stop being so “aggressive!” And shut up. And smile more–it’s a shame not to smile when we have such pretty faces! Also (and this was real advice I got): invite people out to lunch! That will fix everything, because we women hold all the power with our amazing silent smiles and lunches.

    I would prefer to be thought a narcissist or a sociopath than to internalize this kind of psychological abuse.

    Ruth: for the last several years, I’ve thought about writing my letters in a way meant to counter the kind of detailed criticism someone’s work might receive. So I write in detail explaining about how each & every part of the book/dossier is excellent/outstanding. (It’s a lot of work.) But I’m sure you do this already, because you’ve read loads of tenure review letters & you know what makes for a persuasive vs. unpersuasive letter.


  13. I am shocked, just shocked. And I’m intrigued about how I see these dynamics playing out. In how people respond to individuals on campus. But I’m also about to write a post tenure review letter for a man, and I’m thinking that I should comment on personality!


  14. I’m remembering that the first published review of my first book started off by stating “this book took a long time to write”! Honestly, what prompted the reviewer to start researching the timeline of my career? And did it not occur to them that the length of time I took to write it might have had something to do with something personal, difficult, etc.? I wonder if they would have made the same big deal of my slowness if I’d been a man. (The reviewer was a woman, showing that we have indeed internalised these double standards.)


  15. What relevance does the book’s timeline have to its quality? This is EXACTLY the kind of thing I would see in those tenure review letters–reviewers questioning the professional judgment of the women scholars (Why that journal and not a higher profile one? Why didn’t she publish that chapter as a stand-alone article rather than include it in the book? Why ask these questions now unless you WANT to undermine their colleagues’ confidence in them?)

    I was going to say that I could see a reviewer making a comment to that effect that “it was a long time in the making and other scholars have eagerly awaited its appearance, and I’m happy to say this book does not disappoint,” or, “this book was a long time in the making, and the quality and depth of its research and writing really shows it,” but you can compliment without the editorial comment on it being a long time in the making. “This book does not disappoint” and “this book will be greeted by an eager and appreciative audience” make the same point without the potentially undermining comment about the timeline.


  16. When I was untenured, my department chair — a woman — told me I needed to “learn to talk less and listen more”. That one — I still marvel at it. I am sure she thought of herself as a feminist. It’s not that it might not be true of a junior scholar (or anyone) — including me! But somehow I don’t imagine for a second that exact phrasing would have been trotted out to a male candidate’s face.


  17. OMG. I had a colleague in Philosophy at my former university who was told by her female chair that she’d need to be twice as good as any man in her position to be tenured, so she’d just better get with the program and produce twice as much scholarship, get twice as good student evals., etc. Perhaps your chair was motivated by the same need to be “helpful” to your career?


  18. Oh, and I should add: this Philosophy chair was well-known on that campus as a leading feminist, and was looked to for advice for all kinds of women all over campus! So she was pissed when my friend said, “well, I think that’s unfair and wrong and unhelpful for you to make this my problem.”

    I believe she wanted my friend to be tenured, but her instinct was to tell my friend to adapt to the system rather than to defend my friend’s record with an eye on equitable treatment for all tenure candidates.


  19. Pingback: food for thought: laboring under illusions of gender | Amiable Archivists' Salon

  20. Oh, this was painfully depressing and brings to mind the only really bewildering performance review I’ve ever had. I’m an adult, and can take constructive criticism. I’ve had my share. But I once arrived at a performance review to be completely and utterly ambushed by a supervisor two levels above my own entirely on what this study would have described as personality criticism. I was too demanding. I wasn’t communicating well enough. I was too aggressive. I should just settle down, already. I was given not one single specific example, just chastised roundly and told I should shape up or ship out. I was already interviewing at other jobs and moved on 6 weeks later but it’s clearly still left a nasty taste in my mouth!


  21. Non-specific criticism of your personality, Amanda? Why didn’t you find that helpful or instructive?

    I guess it was, but not in the way it was intended to be. It helped to reaffirm the rigteousness of your decision to get the hell out of there!


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