Why Women Advisors Are Judged Differently

April 14, 2015

by Dan Solin

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The allegations in Ellen Pao’s well-publicized, but ultimately unsuccessful, gender discrimination lawsuit against venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers must be familiar to women advisors. Among other claims, Pao alleged she was judged by different standards than her male counterparts and was excluded from male-only events because her presence might “kill the buzz.”

The facts in this case are complex and highly personal. Pao’s own behavior was questioned, and her interpersonal skills were a subject of debate. Nevertheless, she and her female colleagues were subjected to situations due to their gender. One particularly tawdry incident recounted at the trial involved a male partner who tried to force his way into a female colleague’s hotel room while on a business trip for the firm.

Recently, a woman advisor I’m coaching told me of a similar experience she had while attending an investment conference. These events led me to ask two questions:

Are women advisors perceived differently than their male counterparts?

If so, what can we do about it?

Troubling data

One study collected 248 performance reviews from 180 people, of which 105 were men and 75 were women. The reviews were from 28 different technology companies of various sizes. The results were quite remarkable:

  • More than 70% of female employees received critical reviews with negative feedback, compared to only 2% of the male employees.
  • Twenty-three percent of the female employees received critical reviews with only constructive feedback, compared to 81% of the male employees.
  • Nearly 95% of the female employees received reviews with critical feedback, compared to 83% of the male employees.
  • Only 13% of the female employees received reviews without criticism, compared to 58% of the male employees.

The study found reviews written by women were no more likely to contain critical feedback than reviews written by men. The manager’s gender wasn’t a factor. Both men and women were harsher on female employees.

Men were typically given constructive suggestions, like the need to improve certain skills. Women received similar suggestions, but these were often coupled with negative comments about their personality, like being abrasive or judgmental.
The study found negative personality criticism appeared only twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men, compared to 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

The study concluded that women in technology are subjected to negative personality feedback that their male peers simply aren’t. I have no reason to believe that this finding wouldn’t extend beyond the technology sector.

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