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Women Are Three Times More Likely To Be Labelled As “Too Aggressive” – Week 14

Women are three times as likely to be labelled “too aggressive”

In the introduction to this month’s theme (BEHAVIOUR) I explained that women are often penalised for displaying what is typically thought of as male behaviour. This follows neatly on from Week 13‘s post where I discussed the finding that – contrary to popular opinion – women ask for pay rises as often as men, they just don’t get them.

In a study described in Harvard Business Review, researchers found that of the 200 performance reviews they examined in one particular tech company, comments and quality were rated very differently for men and women:

Women had vague praise more often than reviews for men (57% and 43%, respectively). Comments such as “You had a great year” populated many women’s reviews.

Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard in Harvard Business Review Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back 29 April 2016

This is supported by the more qualitative examples offered by Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio through her own research, as described in HBR: “women were 1.4 times more likely to receive critical subjective feedback (as opposed to either positive feedback or critical objective feedback).”

I found that these biases can lead to double standards, in that­­ a situation can get a positive or a negative spin, depending on gender. In one review I read, the manager noted, “Heidi seems to shrink when she’s around others, and especially around clients, she needs to be more self-confident.” But a similar problem —­­ confidence in working with clients —­­ was given a positive spin when a man was struggling with it: “Jim needs to develop his natural ability to work with people.”

In another pair of reviews, the reviewer highlighted the woman’s “analysis paralysis,” while the same behavior in a male colleague was seen as careful thoughtfulness: “Simone seems paralyzed and confused when facing tight deadlines to make decisions,” while “Cameron seems hesitant in making decisions, yet he is able to work out multiple alternative solutions and determined the most suitable one.”

Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio in Harvard Business Review How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews, and What to Do About It 12 April 2017

Significantly, Correll and Simard’s research found that along with vague and subjective feedback, women were far more likely than men to be labelled “too aggressive” – “in fact, 76% of references to being “too aggressive” happened in women’s reviews, versus 24% in men’s.” *

Clearly there is a big difference in the quality of the feedback given and how helpful it is for men and women looking to develop in their careers – and further, there’s a deeply ingrained bias in the way they’re perceived.

Why is this important?

Women are more likely to be labelled as aggressive – which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the behaviour were rewarded.

However, as a 2008 study published in Psychological Science showed “women who expressed anger were consistently accorded lower status and lower wages, and were seen as less competent.” **

As Cecchi-Dimeglio writes “double standards like these clearly affect women’s opportunities for advancement.”

So, not only are men getting far more substantive feedback but the analysis shows “that developmental feedback for men was more likely to be linked to business outcomes (60% for men versus 40% for women)” * meaning that men are consistently better able to make an evidence-based case for their performance and success than women are.

Considering the fact that women continue to earn less than men and that “there are still no sectors in the UK economy where women are paid the same as men”, this is another example of how women continue to be held back at work through no fault of their own. ^

What can you do about it?

As described in the introduction to this theme, I’d highly recommend picking up a copy of The Glass Wall. As the blurb says:

Drawing on Unerman and Jacob’s own experience in male-dominated businesses, as well as over a hundred interviews with both men and women, The Glass Wall provides clear, smart and easy-to apply strategies for success. From unlocking ambition and developing resilience to nurturing creativity and getting noticed, these are the skills that everyone needs to learn to help break down that wall and create better workplaces for all.

A book like The Glass Wall is a great entry point to re-thinking how you behave with different members of your team. Even with the best of intentions you could be getting it wrong. And if you’re someone on the receiving end of some very gendered behaviour (including useless perfomance reviews) this will give you action points to create change.

As I write in many of my posts, I’d also recommend grabbing a copy of Caroline Criado-Perez’s Invisible Women. It makes an unbeatable case for the ways in which sexism and misogyny are rife and so many of the women who have read it have reported feeling that they realised they were no longer alone in observing ways in which society wasn’t built for them. You’re not the crazy one here. It’s the environment that’s crazy.

If you’re having trouble getting your head around just how gendered language can be, check out Ben Schmidt’s gender tool to give you an idea of how often men and women are likely to be described in certain ways. His tool uses data from 14 million reviews of teachers so it’s just about as robust as can be.

Finally, this is the fourth month of Feminist Fact Friday and if this is your first time checking out the series then take a look at what you’ve missed from previous months. I’ve put a ton of action points in there (including one of my favourites: join the Women’s Equality Party) and just learning the facts is a step in the right direction. Knowledge is power.


* Shelley Correll and Caroline Simard in Harvard Business Review Vague Feedback Is Holding Women Back 29 April 2016

** Paola Cecchi-Dimeglio in Harvard Business Review How Gender Bias Corrupts Performance Reviews, and What to Do About It 12 April 2017

*** Victoria L. Brescoll, Eric Luis Uhlmann in Psychological Science Can an Angry Woman Get Ahead?: Status Conferral, Gender, and Expression of Emotion in the Workplace 1 March 2008

^ Aleksandra Wisniewska, Billy Ehrenberg-Shannon, Cale Tilford and Caroline Nevitt in the Financial Times Gender Pay Gap: women still short-changed in the UK 23 April 2019

Women at Work podcast We Deserve Better Than “Attagirl” 9 October 2018