In the landmark gender discrimination case, Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, 490 U.S. 228 (1989), the Supreme Court recognized that discrimination based on an employee’s failure to conform to gender role stereotypes is prohibited under Title VII. As the Supreme Court reasoned, “an employer who acts on the basis of a belief that a woman cannot be aggressive, or that she must not be, has acted on the basis of gender.” The Court further declared that: “An employer who objects to aggressiveness in women but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible Catch-22: out of a job if they behave aggressively and out of a job if they do not. Title VII lifts women out of this bind.”
Nearly twenty years after the Supreme Court’s decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins, female employees continue to bump up against this Catch-22. Recent studies confirm that performance evaluations are frequently tainted by gender bias and the kind of gender role stereotyping decried in Price Waterhouse.
A 2014 study of performance evaluations by tech entrepreneur and linguist Kieran Snyder uncovered that reviews of female employees were far more likely to include negative personality criticism and to use words like “abrasive” and “bossy.” Snyder analyzed 248 reviews from 180 employees (105 men and 75 women); of the reviews, 141 were evaluations of male employees and 107 were evaluations of female employees. As a preliminary matter, Snyder determined that critical feedback was unevenly distributed by gender, with 58.9% of the evaluations of men containing critical feedback and 87.9% of the reviews of women containing critical feedback. Strikingly, negative personality criticism—such as “watch your tone” or “stop being so judgmental”—appeared only twice in the 83 critical evaluations received by men, whereas such personality critiques appeared in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.
Furthermore, Snyder found that employers use words like abrasive, strident, aggressive, and bossy to describe female employees’ behaviors when they lead. Notably, Snyder determined that the term abrasive, the same word that surfaced in Price Waterhouse’s evaluations of Ann Hopkins, appeared seventeen times to describe thirteen different female employees. By contrast, the word abrasive never appeared in evaluations of any of the male employees. Indeed, of the words abrasive, strident, aggressive, and bossy, only the word aggressive appeared in male reviews. The word aggressive surfaced three times in male employees’ reviews, and, in two out of those three instances, it was in the context of the reviewer urging the male employee to be more aggressive.
Another study, conducted by Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, identified similar gender bias after analyzing hundreds of performance evaluations from a professional services firm and three tech companies. The Stanford study found that women employees received 2.5 times the amount of feedback that male employees received about aggressive communication styles, with critiques like “your speaking style is off-putting” abounding. In a second study by Stanford’s Clayman Institute, which involved an in-depth analysis of over two hundred performance reviews within a large technology company, the Institute found that 76% of the references to employees being “too aggressive” occurred in women employees’ reviews, as compared to just 24% in men’s reviews.
Gender role stereotyping in evaluations can have far-reaching consequences, as performance appraisals are frequently tied to pay, promotion, and other employment-related decisions. If you believe that you have received a discriminatory performance review and are considering bringing a gender discrimination lawsuit, you should consult with an employment lawyer, who can assess the circumstances of your case. Sanford Heisler Sharp has experienced employment discrimination lawyers in New York, Washington, DC, San Francisco, San Diego, and Tennessee.