Imagine a scenario where two employees—one male, one female—are given performance reviews at work.
The male candidate is given helpful, constructive feedback that focuses on how he can strengthen specific skills, such as, "There were a few cases where it would have been extremely helpful for you to have delved deeper into the details to move an area forward." The female employee might be given similar feedback on how she could improve—but with the added bonus of being told to adjust a personality trait, such as "watch your tone," and "don't be so judgemental."
It's cringeworthy, but a new study suggests that kind of gender bias may be common in performance reviews. Kieran Snyder, a columnist for Fortune, wanted to know if review tone or content differed based on employee gender, so she collected 248 reviews from 180 people (105 men; 75 women) and 28 different companies.
She found that the word "abrasive" was used 17 times to describe 13 different women but never made an appearance in mens' reviews. Overall, negative personality criticism—"you can come across as abrasive. I know you don't mean to, but you need to watch your tone"—showed up twice in the 83 reveiws received by men but in 71 of the 94 reviews received by women. Ouch.
The study sample was small, and Snyder points out that she's not sure if women were more willing to submit critical reviews or if men removed critical language from theirs or if there are other confounding variables at work. Still, it's a topic worth examining.
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How should you react if you've received a poor performance review? Margie Warrell, Forbes columnist and author of Stop Playing Safe, shares her top tips.
1. Analyze. "Just because someone's given you feedback doesn't mean you have to take it," says Warrell. Try to step back for a second and determine where it's coming from, why someone might be giving it, and what elements of the feedback might be helpful. "Did you falter in a presentation to the executive team? Did you lose confidence in a meeting because you didn't have all the facts? Get details of where you stumbled and work out what the core issue was." Take what's useful—leave the rest.
2. Reframe. It's easy to take criticism as a personal attack on your character, but if you can see it as "one data point to integrate" among all the positive things you've been told, it's easier to view it as something that will help you grow professionally, especially if you're early in your career.
3. Get specifics. This is especially important if you suspect that you really are being unfairly targeted for any reason. "Make sure you ask for examples of what your boss may be referring to," Warrell says. "Ask him or her to be very clear about what they'd like you to do differently." And if you haven't already, make it a habit to get everything in writing. This will protect you if you decide to move forward and file a formal complaint with your HR department.