Tip 2: Listen for and correct personality penalties – in casual conversation or in formal performance evaluation

The situation:

You’ve probably heard someone being described as “pushy” or “bossy” or being told to “tone it down.” Or perhaps someone has labeled you this way at some point. Research repeatedly demonstrates that women experience “personality penalties” (e.g., negative feedback regarding their personality, style or tone) more often than men. For example, these penalties include being labeled as “pushy, abrasive, or having a challenging personality” or being told that they could “tone it down a little.” Biases about race and class also result in different manifestations of these personality penalties. While these penalties often occur in formal performance evaluations, they also happen in casual hallway conversation or informal advice-giving, where any observer might intervene.

What you can do:

  • Question these comments when you hear them in casual conversation or in more formal performance evaluation discussions. Always assume good intentions and avoid blame when first intervening.
  • You might say something like: “Hmm, what makes you think so or what do you mean by that exactly?” or “I’ve made these same kinds of comments before but have learned that subtle biases can sometimes lead us to conclusions like this; it’d be a good idea to examine what we mean by this comment more closely.”
  • It can be especially helpful to acknowledge that we all share these biases, that you have done this before or that we all make these kinds of assumptions or comments at times.
  • If intervening in the moment does not seem appropriate or possible, question internally and make a note to address this issue later in private or in a more general manner (that doesn’t single out a particular speaker) in a later meeting.


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