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The Insane Double Standard for Women Working in Tech

Even women who earn overwhelmingly positive performance reviews are told that they have 'personality flaws,' a new study finds.
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Why aren't there more women in positions of top leadership? And why do women entrepreneurs seem so reluctant to seek out venture financing? Hint: It's got less to do with work-life balance, children, eldercare, or supportive spouses than you might think.

Instead, some pretty persuasive answers to those questions can be found in a study conducted by linguist and startup CEO Kieran Snyder. This is not a study funded by grant money, sponsored by a big university, or pored over by teams of statisticians. But the results are so incredibly lopsided that the study begs to be taken seriously. 

Snyder asked men and women working at tech companies if they would share their performance reviews with her. She figured that those with the best reviews would be most willing to share them, and indeed, almost all of the reviews were positive. She got 248 reviews from 105 men and 75 women, working at 28 tech companies.

In a post for Fortune, Snyder writes that, according to her analysis of the reviews, critical feedback is doled out much differently for women than it is for men. Men get criticized because they fail to develop or exhibit certain skills. Women get criticized for perceived personality flaws.

Here's a quote from a review that was critical of a man:

There are a few cases where it would have been extremely helpful if you had gone deeper into the details to help move an area forward.

Here's one that was critical of a woman:

You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don't mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.

It's not a close call. In the 83 critical reviews received by men, just two included comments on personality. In the 94 critical reviews received by women, 71 included negative comments about personality.

The negative comments lobbed at women were the same ones that capable, professional women have heard over and over and over: The dreaded "tone" complaint, above. You're too aggressive. You need to let others share the limelight.

At the same time, we've got a veritable industry, from The Confidence Code to Lean In, telling professional women that, in order to get the career recognition they deserve, it's up to them to work harder and be more confident.

Clearly, there's something else going on here. Remember, these are overwhelmingly positive reviews. Given that, is it even remotely possible that only 2.4 percent of the men have personality flaws that affect their work, but 76 percent of the women do?

That seems highly, highly unlikely. What seems much more probable is that workplace culture is just not that comfortable with women in professional roles. While this study is restricted to tech companies, I'll bet the phenomenon extends to other industries. Remember when Jill Abramson was fired from her job as executive editor of The New York Times--supposedly because of her brusque management style, among other things? And here we thought being brusque was a badge of honor among those who run newsrooms! Only if you're a guy, apparently.

I'm not saying, nor does this study say, that women can't succeed in tech or in business. Of course they can, and they do. But this study does give some insight into why so many women leave STEM careers. It's got to be demoralizing to be criticized for perceived personality flaws while your male colleagues have the luxury of being judged on their actual work.

Likewise with venture capital. VCs are fond of saying, repeatedly, that they invest in the entrepreneur and the team more so than the business. The theory is that the right team will find a good business or business model, even if they start off in the wrong direction. But this research shows just how much more difficult it is to be the "right" person if you're a woman. Regardless of a woman's actual credentials, those evaluating her are much more likely to find her lacking in some ineffable way than they would a guy.

Is it any wonder so many women choose businesses that don't require venture capital? In most cases, I don't think these women lack confidence or business chops. They'd just rather use their considerable talents and energy to build great businesses, rather than to try to buck a crazy cultural norm all on their own.

IMAGE: Getty Images
Last updated: Aug 28, 2014

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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