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feedbackShe is “helpful” but “too assertive.” He “shows initiative” and “solves problems.”

At least two research studies have found that men and women are given very different feedback at work. A review of the research, titled “Managers Watch Your Language,” appeared in the WSJ collection of articles this September on Women in the Workplace. According to this review, the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University is analyzing the language of hundreds of written performance reviews from technology and professional service firms. Dr. Kieren Snyder has also done a linguistics analysis of nearly 250 performance reviews in the technology industry. Both studies show big differences in what is said to men and women. And both studies find that these differences show up regardless of whether the manager delivering the feedback is male or female.

Women are 2.5 times as likely to get feedback about an aggressive communication style – “coming on too strong.” Have women just become too outspoken? Or is the double bind at play? Are women judged negatively for speaking in ways that are acceptable, even rewarded, in men? Is there a double standard for “aggressiveness” based on deeply held thoughts about how women are “supposed to be” (e.g., “supportive”)?

Women’s performance reviews have 2.4 times as many references to team accomplishments rather than individual results. One can generalize that women are less comfortable claiming credit – and more comfortable attributing an achievement to team effort and other external factors. And managers hold stereotypes about women’s being “supportive,” “collaborative” and “helpful.” Do these factors divert focus from a woman’s individual contributions?

Women receive about one-third as much feedback about business outcomes. Their reviews have half as many words about their technical expertise, “assertiveness, independence and self-confidence,” and having “vision.”

Words make a difference. When it comes to promotions, research shows, there is a strong preference for individuals rated high on individual initiative.

The WSJ article notes initiatives by one company to “use the same language to describe the performance of men and women.” Textio, Inc., Dr. Snyder’s company, has developed a software product that “analyzes language in job ads” and is developing a product that prompts managers “if language in a review appears to have gender biases.”

So what is the issue here? Is it to “watch our language” in performance reviews or feedback? Surely it is underlying actual gender bias that just comes out in words. Otherwise, this is just another push for political correctness. And we know that political correctness has lately lost some popularity!

The words we use can be a window into our conscious and unconscious thoughts. They can be indicators of bias. I am curious about whether changing our language can create change in our thinking. Can making managers more aware of their language actually uproot and change gender biases? Or are we attacking symptoms rather than the root cause?