Aggressive or Leader? Managers Use Different Words to Describe Female Employees
Rachel, a seasoned executive in the natural resources industry, got promoted to an important role in her company, one of the very few women to reach this level of success. Her new boss gathered the team and announced to them: “I’m happy to have Rachel on our team, even if she’s bossy!”
Had it been the first time for Rachel to hear this kind of comment, she might have gotten offended but she shared this story almost excitedly: “I am bossy and I wear this label with pride because I’m also fair! I get my stuff done, I deliver projects successfully and I treat people with respect.”
I could relate to her experience. I first experienced shock about gender differences at work when I started managing people and projects. I was called “aggressive” for asserting my opinions in meetings and disagreeing in group discussions. In the meantime, I saw male leaders shouting, speaking on top of others and ignoring opposing viewpoints. No one called them aggressive. On the contrary, it seemed as if this type of behavior commanded even more respect!
In the beginning, I thought that there was something wrong with me. I started censoring myself, speaking less in meetings, avoiding disagreeing with suggestions that didn’t make sense to me and just letting things be. I had to suppress my inquisitive nature but then in parallel, I started feeling that the quality of my deliverables was suffering and I wasn’t bringing anything unique to the table. It was an extremely confusing moment in my career.
When I started talking with other women about this, I realized that I wasn’t alone. In fact, research shows that women are judged and treated differently than men at work.
In one large-scale study conducted within the U.S. army, researchers looked at 4,000 participants and 81,000 performance evaluations and compared them across gender lines. The choice of the army wasn’t random. It’s a majority-male organization that “predicates itself on meritocratic ideals of fairness and justice providing equal opportunity regardless of demographics” and researchers wanted to test how well reality reflected this aspiration.
When they looked at objective metrics (e.g., grades, fitness scores, class standing), they didn’t find any gender differences. However, when they looked at subjective metrics, they discovered that managers more frequently used positive attributes to describe men and negative attributes to describe women. While men were called “analytical, competent, articulate, confident, versatile,” women were called “inept, frivolous, selfish, vain,” etc., The most common positive term used to describe men was “analytical.” For women, it was “compassionate.” The most common negative term used to describe men was “arrogant” while for women it was “inept.”
What does this mean for you?
If you are called aggressive at work, the first thing you should do is evaluate whether this feedback is fair:
Are you often getting into unnecessary conflicts?
.. diminishing others and their contributions?
.. shouting or cursing at colleagues or subordinates?
.. pursuing your individual interests at any cost, at the expense of others’ needs?
If the answer to any of the above is “yes,” you should work on softening your approach.
[if you're having a hard time getting an objective feedback on your performance, one of our leadership programs may provide useful insights]
But if you are an assertive woman, who delivers results and treats people with respect but still receives subjective feedback with words such as “aggressive” or “bossy,” you can wait for several generations for people to follow Sheryl Sanberg’s suggestion of banning “bossy.” Or, give yourself a pat on the back: you have some serious leadership qualities but perhaps the world (or your specific work environment) is still not ready for your talents!
If you are managing others, pay attention to how you evaluate and give feedback to your male versus your female subordinates. Instead of criticizing with adjectives, like “aggressive,” highlight situations and specific behaviors that were not adequate and make suggestions for improvement. For example: “In that meeting, you said that someone’s idea was stupid. Instead of making judgemental statements, explain what part of the proposal didn’t make sense to you and why and suggest an alternative.”
While we wait for the world to fix some of these gender imbalances, I review these nine non-threatening leadership strategies for women, illustrated by the satirist, Sarah Cooper.
This article was originally published in my column for Forbes Careers.