Women and Criticism

female-criticsmOn this blog, I often discuss immature and mature ways to deal with criticism. The advice that I offer is designed to be helpful to males and females alike.  But recently, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, Tara Mohr argues that when it comes to criticism, women can benefit from advice specifically targeted to the unique cultural situation that they find themselves in.


The New York Times Article

New York TimeMs Mohr, in her thoughtful article titled “Learning to Love Criticism,” tells us:

Criticism stings for all of us, but women have been socialized to not rock the boat, to be, above all else, likable. By the time a girl reaches adolescence, she’ll most likely have watched hundreds of films, television shows and advertisements in which a woman’s destiny is determined not by her own choices but by how she is perceived by others. In those hundreds of stories, we get the message: What other people think and say about us matters, a lot.

In addition to these messages in the media, for centuries women have had less rights than men.  Being likable, or at least acceptable to stronger, more powerful men, became a primary survival strategy. For many women around the world, this is still the reality.

Given this history, we might think that women have mastered the skills to insure that they are liked, but in the business world there is some evidence that problems exist.

A Recent Survey

women and bosses 1In a recent survey that looked at 248 performance reviews from 28 different companies, both men and women gave more negative feedback to the women being reviewed.  Here are a few examples:

“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 criticism showed up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It showed up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.


There are three possibilities that present themselves here:

1. The women received more negative criticism despite not acting in any distinctively different way than the men because of distinctively different expectations of how women “should” act;

2. The women who received more negative reviews actually acted distinctly different in certain ways than the men and it is these differences that led to the additional negative criticism;

3. It is a little of both.

An Informal Survey

woman bossInterestingly, from my perspective, are the results of an informal survey of someone I know who was intimately involved in evaluating and promoting personnel.  Here, early criticism was about equal between men and women, but more women took the negative criticism they received to heart and made changes prior to their following evaluation. This ultimately led to their promotions.  The majority of the men who got negative feedback seemed uninterested in making any changes and subsequently lost their opportunity for promotion.

Women boss at workFrom this, I think that it is not only possible, but perhaps even probable, that despite the pattern suggested in the more thorough survey, there is great variability across settings.

Some bosses may have an archtype that a great leader is a tough, no nonsense person who only projects a demanding sense of profits.  Such an attitude will provoke a very different style of criticism around the office than one that supports the idea working for profits doesn’t have to mean that we must abandon basic principles of human dignity.

Let me just add that the person involved in providing and promoting personnel in the informal survey happened to be a master at providing very specific feedback.  Consider the example provided above in which someone stated in a review:

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

Such a statement potentially can be helpful as one looks within and seeks to come up with a less abrasive way to respond in situations. However, the feedback would be far better if a supervisor, let’s call him Bill, invited a subordinate, let’s call her Mary, to a one-on-one meeting shortly after an abrasive incident occurred.  At that meeting, Bill does several things.  He gently explains that he is about to imitate how Mary had acted, using her tone of voice and what was said.  Then, after imitating for her how she acted, he displays for her in a role-play how he would prefer she act when a similar incident arises.  He then proceeds to ask Mary to imitate what he just acted out.  Then he goes through this process with Mary until she can actually copy the less abrasive style to his satisfaction.  If Bill provided this level of specific feedback, it would be potentially far more helpful then the two-sentence feedback that was actually provided.


woman boss blackI very much support the recommendations that Ms Mohr provides in her New York Times piece. For example, at one point she writes,

If a woman wants to do substantive work of any kind, she’s going to be criticized — with comments not just about her work but also about herself. She must develop a way of experiencing criticism that allows her to persevere in the face of it. 

How can this be done?  “A woman,” says Ms Mohr, “can identify another woman whose response to criticism she admires. In challenging situations, she can imagine how the admired woman might respond, and thereby see some new possible responses for herself.”

I won’t go into all of the recommendations of Ms Mohr, suffice it to say her article is well worth reading.  But I do think it is essential to point out that a single article will not do the trick for most of us, women or men, who want to learn to become a master at dealing with criticism.  It takes several months of regularly bringing before our minds examples of criticism, followed by a discussion of how to transform each specific example into something better.  My blog provides one way to go about doing just this. Readers can begin with the introduction to this blog, and move forward at their own pace by clicking on the next newer entry post. Additionally, by reading the trilogy of novels that I’ve written, people become immersed for a few months in adventures that illustrate the struggle to seek respect even under the most trying circumstances.

Well, that’s this week’s edition of From Insults to Respect. Here’s to hoping you’ll join us again real soon.



Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Psychiatric Name Calling: Is Science to Blame?
Psychiatric Name Calling: Is it Helpful?

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.


  1. Women have had a diminished status since the beginning of recorded history. Only a few, throughout time have been elevated to a high status, including contemporary political leaders, queens, and others through the ages. Women today, in most cases, have broken through the so-called glass ceiling. If a women produces the same amount of work as her male counterparts, she should be paid as equally as the male worker. Why does this discrimination still exist today?

  2. Hi Marv, I think there has been some real progress for women. They fought for and achieved the right to vote and I have seen charts that show that many jobs that had been formally closed to them have opened up. It takes time to overcome old patterns. It seems that basic principles of fairness would rule the day, but that’s just not always the case.

  3. I think there is a lot of truth in your Blog and in Tara’s article. There is another fact that isn’t being discussed. Men and Women communicate differently.

    Men tend to be problem solvers and find satisfaction in action. Women have a deep need to communicate and be heard. This often comes across as the exact adjectives given in their reviews, Abrasive, Judgmental and Strident. Men tend to want to close down and solve the issues women are bringing up. Women often bring up what men consider smaller issues and that can come across as judgmental. John Grey has done a lot of work on this exact issue. The same issue is very common in relationships between men and women.

    The above comments are just my opinion. It would be nice to see more written about
    “how to deal” with this age old problem. It doesn’t seem to be going away and it’s clear that there’s a communication difference between men and women. The performance reviews discussed clearly indicate there is a gap that needs to be understood and closed.

  4. It goes both ways, Jeff. My mother was extremely overbearing and made life miserable for my dad. He wasn’t allowed to play cards with friends, he wasn’t allowed to say hello to a female coworker or drive a woman home who needed a ride home after work. My mother criticized him constantly for 49 years. She’d yell the most embarrassing things at him.
    He took it and that is on him. But their lives ended badly. He found out he had cancer, and decided he couldn’t stand her anymore. He left her.

    I wish more would be written about abused men.

    • Thanks for your comment, Mary Ann. It’s sad about how criticism went down in your family. Hopefully you learned some things from it that can prevent some of the same things reoccurring in your own life.

    • Thank you Mary for bringing up a valid point. It is a shame that people dominate people without thought. I think it has to do with immature relationships, some individuals need to be in control and masking their own insecurities through bluff and loud noise. I hope that makes sense. I am learning about Parent – Child relationships and how that affects marriage. From what I have learned so far, there has to be two adults, not one parent and one child, in a relationship for it to work. I think that means each individual has to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and recognize the same in their partners in life and compromise accordingly. I wish I had the time to edit this post and make its implied, but life is intervening. Thank you for posting. Happy New Year

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