Don’t make eye contact

My cats perceive direct eye contact as hostile and aggressive; apparently bosses do as well


I found yet another reference to the study about how women are criticized for being “aggressive” while men are praised. (This time in Everyday Sexism.)

I found the original study and I am more cranky than ever.

A few years ago, Kieran Snyder, who, based on the LinkedIn profile I found, has a PhD in linguistics, dug into the issue. (I think it’s the same Kieran Snyder.)

She wrote (the original article was in Fortune, but it’s behind a paywall – I found this at,

Not long ago I was talking to an engineering manager who was preparing performance reviews for his team. He had two people he wanted to promote that year, but he was worried that his peers were only going to endorse one of them. “Jessica is really talented,” he said. “But I wish she’d be less abrasive. She comes on too strong.” Her male counterpart? “Steve is an easy case,” he went on. “Smart and great to work with. He needs to learn to be a little more patient, but who doesn’t?” I don’t know whether Jessica got her promotion, but the exchange got me wondering how often this perception of female abrasiveness undermines women’s careers in technology.

She asked people to give her copies of their performance evaluations.

She analyzed them.

And guess what she learned?

This will not be a surprise to any woman who has ever had a performance evaluation.

Women are told to shut up way more than men are.

Men are given constructive suggestions. Women are given constructive suggestions – and told to pipe down. 

The kinds of observations my friend offers about his reports Jessica and Steve are pretty common. In the 177 reviews where people receive critical feedback, men and women receive different kinds. The critical feedback men receive is heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop. A few examples:

“Constructive feedback on your performance as a feature crew tester can be summed up by saying that you still have some skills to continue to develop.”

“Hone your strategies for guiding your team and developing their skills. It is important to set proper guidance around priorities and to help as needed in designs and product decisions.”

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

“Take time to slow down and listen. You would achieve even more.”

Women receive this kind of constructive feedback too. But the women’s reviews include another, sharper element that is absent from the men’s:

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

“Your peers sometimes feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.”“The presentation ultimately went well. But along the way, we discovered many areas for improvement.

You would have had an easier time if you had been less judgmental about R—‘s contributions from the beginning.”

This kind of negative personality criticism—watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental!—shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

I had a phone interview yesterday. My interviewer was a young woman, maybe in her late 20s? (Her photo was on the company’s website.)

Five minutes and ten seconds exactly after we finished our conversation, she sent me an email telling me they were “going in a different direction.” That is, thanks but no thanks.

I am trying to figure out why. I hope it’s not because she thought I was Too Loud. She asked what my weaknesses were and I told her.

I am being completely honest these days because I don’t want any more jobs where I am stuck doing the things I am bad at or where my personality isn’t a fit.

Well, I was being completely honest in this interview because I don’t really want to work at this place anyhow, but I applied because it’s good practice to interview as much as possible. Their website is all about how they have fun together after work drinking and partying and there is nobody in their company photos who looks to be over 35 years old. Culturally, it would not be a fit. I don’t want to hang out with my co-workers and drink. I want to go home after work. I work for money.

The first weakness I told her about is that I am not strong with details and numbers. A few years ago, one week after I started a new job, the man who hired me quit. He was in charge of all the financial reporting. His boss told me I needed to do these reports now. (But Big Boss did not give me Quitting Man’s salary and when Big Boss replaced Quitting Man, he did not ask Replacement Person – at $30K a year more than I was making – to take back the financial reporting responsibilities. I am still a little ticked off about that.)

Anyhow, I can do financial reports but I hate doing them and it takes me three times as long as anyone else because I have to build in so many checks to make sure all the numbers (which are usually fiction) tick and tie.

The other weakness I told her about is that I am outspoken.

This company was founded by a woman. It’s run by a woman. It’s mostly women who work there.

One would think that other women would embrace outspoken. And would understand that “outspoken” does not mean “abrasive” or “judgmental” or rude or mean.

Sometimes, “outspoken” just means, “eager to contribute ideas” and “doesn’t sit meekly while everyone else talks.”

But maybe not.

Men sure don’t want outspoken. Unless it’s from other men. Then it’s perfectly OK.

Words like bossy, abrasive, strident, and aggressive are used to describe women’s behaviors when they lead; words like emotional and irrational describe their behaviors when they object. All of these words show up at least twice in the women’s review text I reviewed, some much more often. Abrasive alone is used 17 times to describe 13 different women. Among these words, only aggressive shows up in men’s reviews at all. It shows up three times, twice with an exhortation to be more of it.

Maybe I should just sew my lips together.

(Read more of Snyder’s work:

It’s the Culture, Bro: Why Women Leave Tech

The Gender Resume Gap and How to Close It)






5 thoughts on “Don’t make eye contact

  1. I rarely leave comments on The Internet, but your last few posts have really resonated with me. I’ve gotten “speak up more” and “too aggressive / tone it down” in the same evaluation cycle. At one point, I wanted to see what would happen if I agreed to everything and questioned nothing. So I put a ton of effort into being extremely accommodating and finally received a glowing review! Amazing! At the same time, I was turned down for two promotions because I was “too entitled”. That was a few years ago and it still bothers me. Currently I’m unemployed and in month 7 of my job search. Sometimes it feels like I’m never going to find work again 😦


  2. How can a woman who doesn’t talk be too entitled? Jerks.

    I lost my job December 16, so it’s been 2.5 months for me. It’s scary. I hope you find something soon.

    (And just in case – you read Ask A Manager for resume, cover letter, and interview advice, right?)



    1. Oh yeah, been reading AAM for years. I’m taking every interview for the practice, but it’s hard to get excited when I’m only getting calls for the same roles I’ve held previously (at lower pay). Anyway, I hope you also find something soon! I’m doing ok financially so I can keep looking for a while longer. It’s still a demoralizing process though.


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