Why women get tougher performance reviews than men


It seems like everywhere we look lately, organisations are paying tribute to powerful, corporate women. Women in pumps and blazers standing around together, laughing, probably about the fruits of leadership. Women posing for portraits with their arms folded at their desks, ready for biznez. New Getty images of Women, holding beautiful babies while typing undisturbed on their laptops in a spacious loft. Women pointing to pieces of blank paper alongside other women in boardrooms. Women - Leaning In.

But since we've come down from the Sheryl Sandberg mountain of corporatised promise, it's become clear that behind the rhetoric and the calls for greater diversitychange has been slow.

Australia's pay gap is currently at 18% - that's a twenty year high.

Meanwhile, the skewed perceptions of women in the workplace stubbornly remain. And it's not simply that Greg from accounts thinks you're a bitch; it's now showing up in formalised meetings.


Get ready to be shocked-not-shocked at the latest research into performance reviews. You know, those stomach-churning one-on-ones with your boss where they begin by saying, 'Look, there's nothing to be worried about' before launching into a checklist of aggressive feedback, that, if it wasn't for the dulcet tone of their delivery, you'd swear was a roast. Meanwhile you're nodding vigorously and trying your best to appear professional while attempting to cover up the flop sweat now forming on your upper lip.

Maybe not all of us have experienced that particular scenario. But if you're a hard-working woman in an office and this sounds like your story, we can now point to the reason why.

Turns out that 88% of women receive formalised criticisms during their performance reviews, compared to 59% of men.

'It's not my fault women are worse at their jobs than us' said the guy who is sick of chicks going on about feminisms.

Well, here's the thing about that: according to researcher Kieran Snyder, who looked into hundreds of performance reviews across 28 different tech companies, women are being judged not on their professional mistakes but their personalities. In fact, 75% of the negative feedback were comments about the woman's character. Of course it should go without saying that part of doing a good job, no matter your gender, is being emotionally self-aware, i.e nice to people. But it's striking that while three-quarters of the women surveyed are being told what's wrong with their personalities, only 2 per cent of men are being criticised for the same thing.

If that sounds like something specific to the tech industry, perhaps what I say next will carry a more universal theme.

The negative descriptors that frequently appeared on the women’s job evaluations included “bossy,” (holla, Sheryl and Beyonce!) “emotional,” “irrational,” “aggressive” and “abrasive.” Now, I'm just brainstorming here, but from the adjectives above, it looks like women are damned if they try to mimic men and damned if they try to act like themselves. To anyone who has momentarily forgotten how sexist coders work, the word 'aggressive' on a woman usually translates as 'strong leader' on a man, while the word 'emotional' means 'weak'. 

But it gets worse: high-achieving women, who are excelling in every professional area, are being told repeatedly to watch their 'tone' and 'pipe down'.

Is it just me or is all this starting to feel a little Nine to Five?

‘Hey Toots, your KPI for this financial year is to sit down and let the boys talk more!’

It's not just men judging women on their personalities, though. Women are judging their subordinates just as harshly. 'Ah yes', you say to yourself while ensconced in an office toilet stall, tears streaming down your face 'it's not that my boss hates me' you conclude between cry hiccups, 'It's just that she suffers from unconscious bias!'

Indeed we all do. Suffer from unconscious bias, that is. You know that thing where we don't even realise we've made up our mind about someone based on a cluster of stereotypes we've collected in our brains? Yeah, well, unconscious bias costs us ladies more than our reputations - it costs us money

But the most frustrating and paradoxical aspect of this latest research is that men and women in positions of power can have a vague feeling about a woman - let's say they're threatened - but rather than acknowledge this, they'd prefer to tell themselves that the woman is 'difficult', so far, so unfair. But then, in what is supposed to be a strictly professional exercise, they tell that woman exactly what they think of her. Does anyone see the irony here? While women are being called 'emotional' it's the person labelling them who is acting out of their emotions.

So look. Far be it from me to get all emotional here, but it seems that we can't lean in, because that's too 'abrasive'. But we shouldn't lean all the way out, either, because that's ‘weak’. So we should probably just carefully stretch ourselves to the side of the boardroom, look both ways, to make sure everyone has the right perception of us, (including other women, holding their dog-eared copies of Lean In; while their prejudices remain unmoved), and then hope against hope that if we disagree with our superiors, or offer our professional opinion, (but in a communal tone) or, you know, arrive at work every day with the skills we were hired for, we won't be personally attacked for it.