A host of research suggests that we treat women and men differently in the workplace for the same quality and level of work. In fact, even the way we talk about female and male leaders differs, according to the Harvard Business Review. But the way we talk about leaders (and the ways we talk to prospective leaders in performance reviews) could be stalling women's success in the workplace.
Researchers from the Harvard Business Review, David G. Smith, Judith E. Rosenstein and Margaret C. Nikolov analyzed a large-scale military database of over 4,000 participants and 81,000 evaluation to look at objective and subjective performance measures. They looked at a list of 89 positive and negative leadership attributes used to assess the leaders' performances.
"The military provides an interesting and significant setting to evaluate gender bias as it is a long-standing and traditionally male profession that has, over several decades, worked to eliminate formal gender segregation and discrimination," the report, The Different Words We Use to Describe Male and Female Leaders, reads. "For performance evaluations specifically, the military has long been predicated on meritocratic ideals of fairness and justice providing equal opportunity regardless of demographics. The top-down enforcement of equal employment opportunity policies, hierarchical organization by military rank and not social status characteristics, and recent total gender integration in all occupations are hallmarks of meritocratic organizations where we might expect less gender bias in performance evaluations."
The researchers examined the language used to describe the individuals in these performance evaluations and found that, while there was no evident gender difference in objective measures, different language was used to describe the men and women. Grades, fitness scores and class standings were all rather consistent, but the positive attributes assigned to men and women were very different (though the sheer number of positive attributes were the same), and women were assigned significantly more negative attributes.
For example, the most commonly used positive attribute to describe men was analytical, among words like competent, athletic and dependable. For women it was compassionate, among enthusiastic, energetic and organized. The most commonly used negative attribute to describe men was arrogant followed by irresponsible, and for women it was inept, among association with words like frivolous, gossip, excitable, scattered, temperamental, panicky and indecisive.
The research says that these attributes we use to describe male and female leaders are more than just words, and they can have real-life implications.
"So what? Both 'analytical' and 'compassionate' reflect positively on the individual being evaluated — however, could one characterization be more valuable from an organizational standpoint?" the researchers write in their report. "The term analytical is task-oriented, speaking to an individual’s ability to reason, to interpret, to strategize, and lending support to the objectives or mission of the business. Compassion is relationship-oriented, contributing to a positive work environment and culture, but perhaps of less value to accomplishing the work at hand. When considering who to hire, who to promote, or who to compensate, which person — with which attribute — takes the prize? Likewise, who is retained and who is fired? An arrogant employee may have a character flaw – and a negative impact on his work environment — but may still be able to accomplish the task or job. An inept person, in contrast, is clearly not qualified and presumably on her way out."
The research aligns with previous studies that have found differences in formal feedback for male and female employees that suggest that women are more likely to receive vague feedback while men tend to receive constructive criticism that can actually help them advance. Women also consistently hear conflicting feedback, told that they're too bossy or aggressive or need to be more confident and assertive — they too often find themselves caught in a double bind.
Ironically, one of the most sought-after traits a leader can have is compassion, according to the new research, but that doesn't seem to translate into more women in those roles.
"Because of widely held societal beliefs about gender roles and leadership, when most people are asked to picture a leader, what they picture is a male leader," the researchers write.
It's critical that those conducting formal feedback on performances pay close attention to how they're describing their male and female employees and whether or not the advice that they're offering is actionable.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.