Women get dinged for their ambition and subtly encouraged to be more "feminine" even when they're still low-ranking at work, while men get much more upset when they're criticized, a new analysis of workplace dynamics found.
The study, published April 14 in Human Resource Management, examined the backlash effect — the idea that women face repercussions for behaving in a "masculine" way, including displaying ambition at work. The study analyzed the language of 400 written performance evaluations from two organizations in traditionally male-dominated fields; it also drew on two surveys of working U.S. adults.
The researchers hypothesized that female managers would bear the brunt of criticism over displaying "male" traits, but found that women at every level in their careers were receiving negative feedback for being competitive or aggressive, and receiving positive feedback for displaying "feminine" traits such as care for others.
"To me, some of the most interesting findings in the study are the ones that are not significant," lead author Lindsay Ciancetta said. Based on prior research, Ciancetta expected to find that women in leadership positions would face more criticism for displaying more agency, but she found no relationship between seniority and criticism. "The non-significant effects here indicate that it's happening at all levels within an organization, which is really interesting. … What that shows is that, by the time women get to leadership positions, you're already too late."
Ciancetta and her co-author, Sylvia G. Roch, a psychology professor at the University at Albany, looked at "agentic" terms — traits more associated with an individual making decisions and accomplishing goals, such as "assertive" or "dynamic" — as opposed to "communal" terms more associated with female-coded qualities of being social and maintaining relationships, such as "kind" or "supportive."
Male-coded qualities were more likely to occur in a negative context in evaluations of women. In 200 performance reviews, women had an average of 2.3 agentic terms in negative sentences, while the 200 reviews of men had an average of 1.7 agentic terms in negative sentences. The average review was 4.4 sentences long.
The subjects of the written evaluations, who worked in professional-services office jobs, were not especially representative: 72.8% of the written evaluations were for white people. In a follow-up survey of people from many workplaces, 48% of respondents were white.
After a pilot survey of working undergraduate students, a second survey asked 271 people through Amazon's Mechanical Turk about whether they received positive or negative feedback using words from a list of agentic and communal traits.
Men said they received feedback on all the listed traits more frequently, except for four descriptors that garnered women praise: "caring," "considerate," "helpful" and "organized." In contrast, men were praised more for being agentic. The researchers called this a "shaping phenomenon," in which men and women were rewarded when they behaved in a way that aligned with their gender.
Notably, men reported feeling much more upset when they were criticized at work, suggesting they were far more sensitive than women.
"We have this very prescriptive stereotype about women being so emotional, right?" Ciancetta said. "It really caught me off guard. I was not expecting that at all." But in line with the theory grounding the study, she said she realized men were socialized to believe much of their value lies in their ability to provide, and thus criticism may hurt them because of the "salience of identity potentially tied up, for men, with their success in the work sphere."
Overall, the researchers found women received less feedback than men, which is in line with previous research and which Ciancetta said was tied to the apparently false belief that women would be more upset by critical feedback.
"We tend to think of women as the ones who are going to react emotionally to feedback, which is one of the reasons that women don't receive as much critical, constructive feedback as men in the workplace," she said.
Ciancetta believes the findings "would generalize to organizations that are male-dominated, or industries that are historically male-dominated."
And those organizations or industries will have to work harder to create equitable workplaces.
"If we really want to increase female representation within leadership levels within organizations, our focus actually needs to be earlier in that career life cycle," Ciancetta said. "By the time someone gets to a leadership role, they have already worked their way through an entire jungle gym."
The paper, "Backlash in performance feedback: Deepening the understanding of the role of gender in performance appraisal," published April 14 in Human Resources Management, was authored by Lindsay M. Ciancetta, independent scholar; and Sylvia G. Roch, University at Albany, State University of New York.