Service of Performance Evaluations: Inequality for Women

June 7th, 2018

Categories: Equality, Leadership, Perceptions, Performance Evaluation, Research, Surveys, Work


Words have always mattered, especially to those who make their livings writing, singing, reporting, performing in plays and films, giving speeches and the like. Today most are aware which words hurt or insult and use them with eyes wide open.

There is an area—performance evaluations–in which word choice unintentionally sends harmful or positive signals. The negative impact falls on women and their potential for leadership positions.


I wasn’t surprised by the findings of two researcher/professor PhD’s and a PhD statistical consultant who studied the words most used for men and for women—4,000 of them–in 81,000 military performance evaluations. The Harvard Business Review published highlights of their findings.

For men the words were “analytical” as a positive and “arrogant” as a negative. For women, positive and negative words were “compassionate” and “inept” respectively. Any doubt which you’d hire if you were looking for a competent employee—an analytical or compassionate one? Which would you fire first if you had to choose between arrogance and ineptness?

David G. Smith, Judith E. Rosenstein and Margaret C. Nikolov explained why they chose the military as their hunting ground. “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.”

They found no differences in objective measures–grades, fitness scores or class standing.


Back to the subjective measures, the focus of their conclusions. “Men were more often assigned attributes such as analytical, competent, athletic and dependable, women were more often assigned compassionate, enthusiastic, energetic and organized.” And to describe negative attributes “women were more often evaluated as inept, frivolous, gossip, excitable, scattered, temperamental, panicky, and indecisive, while men were more often evaluated as arrogant and irresponsible.”

The researchers’ wrote that their findings line up with others that also show that women often receive “vague feedback that is not connected to objectives or business outcomes, which is a disadvantage when women are competing for job opportunities, promotions, and rewards, and in terms of women’s professional growth and identity.” Female leaders are criticized for being “too bossy or aggressive” and yet advised that they should “be more confident and assertive.” Other research has shown that “when women are collaborative and communal, they are not perceived as competent—but when they emphasize their competence, they’re seen as cold and unlikable, in a classic ‘double bind.’”

The researchers wrote that when asked, most people think of men as leaders. Their study showed that “even in this era of talent management and diversity and inclusion initiatives, our formal feedback mechanisms are still suffering from the same biases, sending subtle messages to women that they aren’t ‘real leaders’— men are.”

Have you written performance evaluations using different terminology to describe men and women’s qualities and weaknesses? Have you run into this bias in performance evaluations about you or people you know? Do you know women who are analytical, competent, athletic and dependable—the positive words to describe men’s performances–or men who are compassionate, enthusiastic, energetic and organized, flattering words about women?


David G. Smith, PhD, is a professor of sociology in the Department of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College. Judith E. Rosenstein, PhD, is a professor of sociology in the Department of Leadership, Ethics, and Law at the United States Naval Academy. Margaret C. Nikolov, PhD is an independent statistical consultant who previously taught at the United States Naval Academy.


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2 Responses to “Service of Performance Evaluations: Inequality for Women”

  1. Protius Said:

    After “equal opportunity” became the fashion in 1964, the first thought that any sensible boss had when writing performance reviews was to avoid writing anything which might be susceptible to misinterpretation in an anti-discrimination lawsuit. This impacted women workers, older ones, people of color–almost everyone.

    I wrote bland stuff which didn’t say much and did my real reviewing off the record verbally. I was quite prepared in serious cases of poor performance by women and minorities to perjure myself if questioned under oath. I, myself, recall being reviewed only once in twenty-five years. We were too busy to waste time on such “mickey mouse.” I got rid of poor performers by a system I nicknamed the “lateral arabesque.” I would promote them to grand sounding positions with no real content where they could still be counted towards the supposed quotas called for by the various civil rights laws but could do only minimal harm to profitability.

    I never had a problem because the good people liked being rewarded for doing a good job and the not so great ones were gone before they could cause damage.

    Nothing has happened in the fifty years since to make me believe that the mechanics of review writing, and the like, can make good work, better done than by the best people, regardless of where they come from, doing it. Equality is not the most likely outcome of equal opportunity.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Staffers receive a message when given nothing to do for a long time. Good of you to “promote” a person so they can show improvement and get another job. Sometimes a person just isn’t fit for one job and could be great in another–terrible to snatch their chances to find the position that better matches their skills and temperament and MUCH BETTER than writing that they are inept. I guess you can’t get sued for such a comment in the military. I have a feeling that in business this kind of remark could get an employer into hot water no matter the complexion, age or sex of the employee.

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