We call men abrasive. Except when it matters.

Over the past several months, I’ve been looking at the gendered way we portray leadership qualities. This has included looking at words like bossy and pushy which we assign with much greater frequency to women than men.

Today, I saw a new word pop up in the news, abrasive, thanks to Kieran Snyder’s report examining the different ways in which women and men in the tech industry were described in performance reviews. She found that women generally received more negative feedback from their reviewers. Among the differences was a greater frequency of words commenting on their personal, managerial, or conversational style such as bossy and another that Snyder found particularly interesting: abrasive (the title of her piece for Fortune is “The abrasiveness trap”)In her article, she reports that in the 248 reviews she examined, abrasive was used seventeen times to describe thirteen women but not a single time for a man.

This led me to wonder whether we would see the same general tendency in media discourse for abrasive that I have previously observed for pushy and bossy.

To examine this, I analyzed 350 randomly-selected occurrences of the word abrasive from the Corpus of Contemporary American English (only the Newspaper, Magazine, and Spoken sections; here’s my search). I threw out all instances where abrasive described not a single person but an object or a group. I was left with 124 instances of abrasive from newspapers, magazines, radio, and television. The gender distribution I found, however, was surprising.


From past research I know that women are underrepresented in COCA and thus in public discourse generally; they account for about 37% of people mentioned in the corpus. As a result, I worked from a baseline of 37% women, 63% men. The results presented in the graph below show that men are labelled abrasive in media discourse with astounding frequency at a rate significantly higher (chi-square = 18.11, p < .0001)  than we would expect given that they make up about 63% of all people mentioned in the corpus. From these figures, I estimate that a man is about 2.58 times more likely to be called abrasive in public discourse than a woman (this figure accounts for the over-representation of men in my database; I have explained this math elsewhere).

What I think this shows is that men display traits that we consider and openly label abrasive in personality or communication style; indeed in public discourse we comment on men’s abrasiveness more than women’s. However, when we consider Snyder’s finding that men in her sample were not labelled abrasive in their performance reviews, this suggests that men’s abrasiveness is not necessarily framed as a problem. In fact, it appears that abrasiveness in men is often presented as a whimsical idiosyncrasy of otherwise competent, strong leaders and visionaries. This sort of usage is illustrated in the following examples from the data:

(1) That sort of information, though, doesn’t faze Grohman’s supporters, who acknowledge he can be abrasive, but insist he is the best thing that’s ever happened to Pearland.

(2) Serving in Washington and Vienna, he built a reputation as an effective, if sometimes abrasive, officer and a skilled interrogator.

(3) JAMES MCNEILL WHISTLER was as renowned for his radically spare, avant-garde exhibition designs and flamboyant, self-promotional personality as for his artwork. His abrasive and colorful personal style had a profound impact on European and American art.

(4) McNown can be prickly, abrasive and arrogant at times. He can be rude and dismissive. He can be annoying and aggravating. He can make you want to send him to his room without his dinner. He can make you want to smack him upside the head and yell, ” What’s your problem? ” Sounds like many an NFL quarterback, does it not? Sounds like a lot of successful NFL quarterbacks, come to think of it.

The difference then between how we apparently think about men’s abrasive personalities and behaviors and women’s is startling. Whereas men’s abrasiveness is often framed as something that we should expect of strong leaders and talented individuals, women’s, at least in the context of tech performance reviews, is framed as a problem, something to be corrected, or worse something to be punished, not something to be accepted.

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Posted in Language and gender
4 comments on “We call men abrasive. Except when it matters.
  1. From a fellow GSU AL/ESL student (I’m now at Nebraska), I’m wondering if you might have any insight(s) to share in regards to how corpora, particularly COCA, but others as well, might better reflect female discourse and female discourse participants.

  2. Hey Brandy! Congrats on getting into Nebraska.

    As far as your question goes, I’d say probably the best way to make COCA more representative is to feature more female voices and female subjects (i.e., notable women as subjects) in public discourse. Since COCA samples from public discourse, so long as public discourse continues to underrepresent women, this will be reflected in COCA, and I don’t think that’s a problem with COCA though it is of course a problem with our public discourse.

    However, if you want to study a corpus with more gender balance that means you’ll have to find corpora that seek to keep gender balanced. The BNC 64, a tool from Lancaster University, controls for gender with regards to speakers but even there men are overrepresented as topics of conversation.

  3. Thanks. I wonder if more inclusion of magazines, particularly those geared towards a female audience, would also help.

  4. It’s possible that the selection of magazines could be expanded. Right now there are definitely some magazines aimed at women included in COCA, such as Cosmopolitan, but I’m doubtful that these greatly increase the representation of women (at least as topics, it probably does increase them as writers) as they still feature men as topics of conversation quite a bit. It’s possible that more feminist publications might bring up the representation of women. Of course, we’d have to be more familiar with the inclusion criteria in COCA to know whether such additions would be relevant. Alternatively, a separate corpus of feminist writing might be kind of cool.

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