The Unconscious Barrier to Equality

Before reading: (1) think of four colleagues (some male and some female), and (2) consider the first adjective that pops into your mind to describe each of those colleagues. Now continue reading.


I am a feminist. I know, I just heard a collective internal groan from the internet. But, like most feminists (and most people), I’m not a bra-burning, Thai fisherman pant-wearing, men-hating, razor-neglecting aggressor. Rather, I hold the simple belief that women and men should be treated equally. (And I am happy to report that I am part of a significant majority in Western society.) Unfortunately, I recently learned that my conscious belief in equality has not fully transformed my unconscious biases. Not only am I a feminist, but I am also a “gender profiler”.

On August 26, 2014, Fortune Magazine published an article by Kieran Snyder entitled “The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews”.[i] The article summarized findings of a study that compared the tone and content of employees’ reviews in the tech industry based on the employees’ gender. 248 reviews were collected from 180 people: 105 men and 75 women. The results were staggering:

  • 58.9% of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback in comparison with 87.9% of the reviews received by women;
  • 75.5% of the women’s critical reviews contained negative feedback in comparison with only 2.5% of the men’s critical reviews (i.e. 97.5% of the men’s critical reviews had only constructive feedback);
  • The critical feedback received by men was heavily geared towards suggestions for additional skills to develop. Critical feedback for women was predominantly focused on negative personality critiques. In fact, only 2% of men’s reviews contained a negative personality critique in comparison with 76% of women’s reviews;
  • The above results were the same whether the reviewer was male or female; and
  • The words bossy, abrasive, strident, aggressive, emotional, and irrational were used repeatedly to describe women (with abrasive used 17 times alone). Among those words, aggressive was the only term used in men’s reviews (and was only used 3 times).

In short, men received performance reviews, women received personality critiques.

Although the study focused on the tech industry, I am certain similar (if not more staggering) results would be found in the legal industry. In fact, after reading the article, I considered the words I would use to describe some of my colleagues. Despite my determination to prove that I am more enlightened that the reviewers in the previously mentioned study, the first adjectives that popped in my mind to describe certain female colleagues were all personality-based, while the adjectives for male colleagues were all performance-based. I unconsciously judged my colleagues differently based on their gender.

The gender profiling issues highlighted above are not novel. In July 1943, Transportation Magazine published an article entitled “1943 Guide to Hiring Women” which enumerated eleven tips on “getting more efficiency out of women employees”. [ii] The tips included these gems:

#2: Older women who have never contacted the public have a hard time adapting themselves and are inclined to be cantankerous and fussy. It’s always well to impress upon older women the importance of friendliness and courtesy.

#3: General experience indicates that “husky” girls – those who are just a little on the heavy side – are more even tempered and efficient than their underweight sisters.

#8: Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. You have to make some allowance for feminine psychology.

#9: Be tactful when issuing instructions or in making criticisms. Women are often sensitive; they can’t shrug off harsh words the way men do.

(The other seven tips are equally entertaining and distressing).

In 1979, a study concluded that when a woman’s contribution to a conversation exceeded 30%, she was perceived as dominating the discourse.[iii] More recently, Sheryl Sandberg summarized a social experiment in her best-selling book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead”.[iv] In the experiment, two resumes were presented to various people. The resumes are identical except that one was for a female candidate and the other for a male candidate. In most cases, people found the success of the male candidate to be appealing and the success of the female candidate to be worrisome.

While our policies and formal approaches to gender equality in the workplace have evolved significantly since 1943, our unconscious biases have not. The 1943 tips to hiring women may seem shocking, but our evaluation of women’s work performance still predominantly focuses on personality and psychology. The majority of Western society may hold the conscious belief that men and women should be treated equally, but our subconscious does not share that belief.

The question then is: How do we reshape our unconscious biases? There is an unending array of literature dedicated to assisting with just that. Invariably, the most effective method is to make our unconscious biases conscious. [v], [vi] As your first step towards consciousness, consider how you described your female and male colleagues before reading this article.

By Kate Saunders


[i] Kieran Snyder, “The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews”, (August 26, 2014) Fortune:

[ii] “1943 Guide to Hiring Women” (September/October 2007) Transportation Magazine:

[iii] Kira Hall and Mary Bucholtz, Gender Articulated, (New York: Routledge, 1995) at p. 92

[iv] Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (New York: Random House, 2013)

[v] Howard Ross, “Proven Strategies for Addressing Unconscious Bias in the Workplace” (August 2008), vol. 2, issue 5, CDO Insights: Diversity Best Practices:

[vi] Project Implicit provides a number of tests that assist with identifying your unconscious biases in relation to gender, race, religion, sexuality, etc. They can be found at:

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