The Subtle Difference Between “You Should Develop This Job Skill” and “Stop Being so Bossy”

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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18 Responses

  1. Doctor Jay says:

    I’m likely to hire some people soon, for the first time in my life. The great thing about this study is that it’s actionable-it provides me with a behavior (discussing personality traits) that is sexist, and an alternate (discussing job skills) that is less sexist. Frankly, I think you’re better off discussing job skills rather than personality traits for a whole bunch of reasons. Skills are something that can be learned, but not everyone thinks personalities can be changed.

    Information like this is so valuable, because I feel that it’s very likely I would have fallen in to this trap without it. So thanks for sharing it.

    I am also relieved by point 3 – “the gender of the reviewer didn’t matter”. A lot of the stuff I read about sexism sort assumes that it’s the fault of, and perpetrated by, men. But no, we’re all in this together. I’m reminded of a study recently where they gave out STEM resumes for evaluation, changing only the name from a male name to a female name. All reviewers, male and female, ranked the female-named resumes lower.

    We’ve got a problem all right, and this stuff actually helps solve it.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      Wow, that’s fantastic feedback, @doctor-jay . It’s really great to see someone take these posts and fold it onto their professional lives in practical ways.

      If you don’t mind, I’ll probably share this response with my wife. I know she’ll be interested to see that this was the first comment here.Report

      • dhex in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        a question:

        would one mitigation be to discuss what might ostensibly be a personality trait – let’s say someone’s bad at disagreeing with people – as a job skill rather than a personality trait? in other words, “you need to learn the skill of how to disagree with people without insulting them?”


      • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        @dhex Well, kind of.

        In most job performance reviews, the personality of the person isn’t supposed to be an issue so much as the job performance. For example, you can be an arrogant person and still communicate effectively with others. Therefore it’s considered inappropriate to say, “don’t be arrogant” instead of “you need to develop the ability to communicate effectively with your team members.”

        One of those statements communicates that there is a skill you can develop to be successful working where you do. The other tends to communicate that you aren’t liked or reelected, and probably won’t be successful. It’s like the difference between telling an employee they need to learn how to do X in order to be successful in your department, and telling them they are stupid because they don’t know how to do X.Report

    • zic in reply to Doctor Jay says:

      On #3; it’s baked in, both men and women have the cultural habit, developed through all history, to defer to men. Recognizing this takes a tremendous effort, and is to some great degree the part of political correctness that matters.

      Think of how often a teenage boy might get asked, “So, you got a girlfriend?” I watched my gay brother get asked this hundreds of times, and he’s told me he’d cringe each time. It’s so easy, instead, to ask if you’re dating someone, have someone you’re keen on, etc.

      It takes effort to be respectful; and we’re often unable to see how we offend with a thousand tiny presumptions of the norm.Report

      • Kim in reply to zic says:

        low level genetic/instinctual things can be routed around.
        Getting some really interesting data out of the Arab Spring, in particular.Report

  2. James Hanley says:

    I have a big concern about the methodology, if this study was in fact done by a single person, and in fact by a single person primed to find bias.

    In document analysis like this, the proper technique is to have a panel of reviewers review the language, without knowledge of whether the language refers to a male or a female. That way you 1) avoid relying merely on the interpretation of a single person, and can examine the results for intercoder reliability, and 2) you avoid the priming effect of the coder being inclined to see what they expect to see.

    Maybe the researcher did in fact do this, and just did not report it in the popular press article (or had an editor excise all that boring methodology stuff), but that’s all pretty crucial if we’re to have any confidence in her findings.Report

  3. Troublesome Frog says:

    I had a long talk about this stuff with my wife after she had a series of disheartening interactions with her team at her current company and it prompted some serious soul searching and self examination.

    As a manager, I’ve always had to work very hard to make sure that I’m being truly fair to people because I recognize the bias in myself. When I need to decide who gets the high visibility important task that’s the interesting career maker, my gut says, “Stick somebody who reminds you of yourself in there! You’d be great at this!” The “reminds me of me” thing could be obvious things like “thinks the same way I do” to things we never want to acknowledge like “looks like me” or “has things culturally in common with me.” I spend a lot of time stepping back and asking myself whether my tendency to trust this person with the keys to the rocket ship is because they have objectively the best track record and deserve a crack at it, or if it’s just because I’m more comfortable with them on a gut level.

    Even though my wife is an engineer and my faculty advisor and respected mentor in engineering school was a woman, I notice that I have a slightly more intense visceral reaction to criticism from women at work than I do from men, all else held equal. It’s a disturbing thing to realize, but I’m pretty sure it’s there, and it makes it even more important to tamp down the instinctive reaction to criticism (“Having this flaw pointed out will reduce my status among the monkey tribe!”) and let intellect triumph over emotion. Nobody likes being criticized, but the best of us use it as a tool instead of dealing with it as an attack.

    So much of what we do is instinctive and based on heuristics that are really subtle and built deeply into our brains that I don’t think we realize how often it skews our behavior and even our perception of reality. I’m trying to find the study, but it was done in software development teams and it found that both men and women tended to overestimate the number of bugs caused by women while underestimating the number of bugs caused by men. It was an interesting metric because bug tracking is usually done in database with good record keeping but there’s a lot going on, so our perceptions of how many problems exist and where they came from aren’t often perfectly in line with reality, so it’s a space that’s ripe for bias to creep in and create a new reality that can easily be checked against concrete data. It’s also scary to think that at the end of a rocky project when the manager is doing reviews, they’re very likely to let their own biases color the data about what really went wrong, who shined, and who dragged the team down.Report

    • @troublesome-frog

      That’s a very good comment. I also worry about how my reactions to my coworkers and supervisors are in part conditioned by my own gendered (and racial) assumptions. I mentioned this before, but I work in a female majority workplace in a field in which women, while they may not necessarily be a majority, are probably less disadvantaged than in a field like engineering. (That’s my sense, at least.)

      But still, I know that in practice I give my male colleagues a little more deference than I do my female ones. And although most (maybe all) of my superiors are women, I do think if any were men, I’d probably show a little more respect to them. It’s not that I disrespect my women bosses, it’s just that there’s some subtle thing where I act probably differently from how I would otherwise.

      I try to account for that in my actions. Fortunately, I supervise very few people and probably have no direct reports. (The “probably” comes from the fact that lines of authority and responsibility at my work place are less than clear, even when it comes to something one would think should be clear, such as who is a direct report to whom. The formal answer is that I have no direct reports. The informal answer is that I probably have one, at least in practice.)Report

  4. Kazzy says:

    A colleague of mine is doing a similar review of our report cards write-ups, looking for gendered language. She hasn’t completed it yet, but early indications are, “Holy shit!”

    The major divide she finds has to do with effort vs skills. Girls who struggle are assumed to lack the fundamental skills; boys who struggle are assumed to be putting forth insufficient effort (with the underlying assumption being that they have the skills but simply aren’t applying them).Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Kazzy says:


      I’d be interested in hearing more about this when the study is done, if it’s something you can share. My guess is that “holy shit!” will be pretty dang appropriate.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Kazzy says:

      Is it assumption, or are the teachers actually observing them screwing around when they’re supposed to be working?Report

      • Brandon Berg in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        With the caveat that science reporting is usually pretty lousy and not necessarily a reliable account of primary research, which itself is often not replicable, here’s an article in the Atlantic that describes research suggesting that a conscientiousness gap does exist between school-age girls and boys.

        That doesn’t mean that you can simply assume that boys’ failures are due to insufficient conscientiousness and girls’ failures are due to insufficient cognitive skills, since of course there’s going to be a great deal of intrasex variation, but neither does a gender gap in teacher assessments necessarily imply bias.Report

      • zic in reply to Brandon Berg says:

        You have to focus on both halves of the coin here; the boys are screwing around, and could do better if they focused. The girls can’t do better, they don’t have the ability.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Brandon Berg says:


        Hard to say. But the trend seems very real.


        I may not be able to share the results in any formal manner, but can probably do a brief write up summarizing what she is finding.Report

    • zic in reply to Kazzy says:

      Interesting. I hope she goes back some years; change in that pattern might surface from the shift in praising the child to praising the effort best practices, too.

      I do have this weird thought that if the pattern hasn’t changed, how does this reflect on girls greater academic achievement in college now? That’s counterintuitive to what I want to read out of this.Report