Gendered Language in Evaluations

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In the workplace, people routinely write letters about others, whether letters of recommendation, performance evaluations, promotional materials, or some other evaluation. Do people use the same language, though, to describe women and men, even when the performance is the same?

David Smith, of the US Naval War College, and his colleagues examined this very question in a recent study they conducted. They were able to analyze a large dataset from the military. It included over 81,000 evaluations of over 4,000 individuals.

Consistent with previous research, they found that women and men did not differ in objective measures of performance. These included grades, fitness scores, and class standing, among others.

There were gender differences, though, in the language raters used in their evaluations. In fact, the research team observed differences in 28 descriptions used to describe performance.

For example, even though their actual performance did not differ, women were assigned more negative attributes than were men. Further, raters most frequently used “arrogant” as a negative evaluation for men, but they used “inept” to describe women.

Even when the description was positive, the type of language differed. The most common term for men was “analytical,” while women were most frequently described as “compassionate.”

You might ask, aren’t both analytical and compassionate positive? What is the big deal? Describing someone as task-focused suggests the individual can reason, strategize, and achieve objectives. Someone who is compassionate focuses on relationships and a positive work environment. Clearly, there are differences in who might be considered for a leadership role.

Together, the study shows that, even when performance is the same, people tend to use gendered language. The research is important to remember next time you write a letter of support.