When Women Are Called 'Aggressive' at Work
The author of 'Nevertheless, She Persisted' on the troubling double standard
(This article is adapted from the new book Nevertheless, She Persisted: True Stories of Women Leaders in Tech by Pratima Rao Gluckman. Reprinted with permission of the author.)
One of my close friends is working with an executive coach who is helping her get to the next level. Her performance reviews generally indicate that she is on track for a promotion. But when one of the male execs on her panel gave her the feedback that she is “aggressive” and recommended that she be “less aggressive,” her morale was shaken.
What does that mean? Is that feedback specific enough to make improvement actionable? Does less aggressive mean to attack but soften the blow? Or does it mean she should pursue her own interests less forcefully?
Why Some Working Women Are Called 'Aggressive'
I think many effective women leaders are justifiably confused when they get vague feedback like this, as well as other nonactionable suggestions for improvement.
Throughout my career, I have been labeled as aggressive. At first, I thought this was a positive description of my performance. I took it to mean that I was a go-getter and that my colleagues and managers appreciated that I had a mind of my own. Born and raised in India, I grew up surrounded by assertive women whom I viewed as role models. However, as time went by, it became clear to me that the term aggressive has a negative connotation, especially in the United States.
When I interviewed women for Nevertheless, She Persisted, it was both eye-opening and a relief to hear them share their experiences of being dogged by this same descriptor.
How Successful Working Women Have Responded
Pam Kostka, a serial entrepreneur who is now CEO of a stealth-mode mobile startup, was given the title “dragon lady,” but she did not change her management approach.
She told me: “I never backed down from being aggressive or direct just because somebody was going to criticize me for it. I won’t apologize for being a woman. I tend to have a direct communication style, which is also penalized in women. Women are supposed to be more empathetic in their style, but I am more direct and logical. Maybe I am that way because I need to be in order to get my voice heard.”
Annabel Liu, who works at a stealth startup and was previously vice president of engineering at LinkedIn, received similar feedback; she was told she had an aggressive and authoritarian style. Her way of responding to this was to evolve her brand to be less abrasive while still being assertive.
Shilpa Lawande, a CEO and co-founder of the artificial intelligence startup in the health care space, postscript.us, also found herself confronting labels of assertiveness or aggressiveness. She chose to take it as constructive feedback and strove toward finding more balance based on each situation.
The Definition of 'Aggressive'
Let’s look at the definition of the word “aggressive.” Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a forceful action or procedure (such as an unprovoked attack) especially when intended to dominate or master.” And further, as “the practice of making attacks or encroachments.”
When a woman speaks her mind and is assertive, she is likely to be labeled as aggressive. So, are these women confronting and attacking their colleagues or are they simply being effective leaders?
I find this topic to be profoundly troubling.
It is hard to imagine anyone leading effectively without being assertive.
The Double Standard in the Workplace
And it would appear that there is a double standard. An article in the Harvard Business Review, which looked at 200 performance reviews within one company, revealed bias in this type of feedback. The results tallied the number of references to being “too aggressive” in the reviews and, not surprisingly, 76 percent of the instances were attributed to women, while only 24 percent of men were identified as having such a communication style.
There is a broader implication to this discussion. Because the “aggressive” label doesn’t just come up in informal discussions, but also appears in performance reviews, it can have a major impact on careers.
How the Label Can Harm Women's Careers
Several studies indicate women are far more likely to be judged on their performance in ways that don’t specifically clarify the level of performance or include focused explanations of what can be improved. Being told in a performance review that one is “aggressive” and being advised to be “less aggressive” is an example of how women’s performance reviews can exhibit patterns of bias, vague feedback and nonactionable suggestions for improvement.
Though companies are becoming much better about analyzing and correcting for when women’s salaries are not commensurate with men’s, it seems that performance reviews need to be subjected to the same scrutiny.
Advice for Employers and Hiring Managers
Those who have the responsibility for reviewing another person’s performance must choose their words carefully. There is a world of difference between being “aggressive” and being professionally assertive.
Having ambition and speaking with authority are not aggressive acts.
The words we choose when describing someone’s performance in the workplace matter — they can have a profound impact on their career.