It is of little surprise that women are held to different standards than men at work. They are in every other aspect of life, so it makes sense that the boardroom, classroom, office, ward, wherever the profession takes place, follows suit. This might have made sense in the forever ago days, when we were foraging for berries while our alpha-male companions beat their chests, threw spears and went off hunting. But it is, perhaps, less crucial that these stereotypes of our roles still exist now – and are often unconsciously used to tell us that a woman who speaks her mind in a meeting is going to steal our position at any given moment. One way to stop her? Make her doubt herself. Make her reconsider her own femininity. Tell her she’s the opposite of what a women “should be”, according to these stereotypes: caring, nurturing, softly spoken, diplomatic. Tell her she’s aggressive.
Take Sally, 31, for example. She’s a care worker who is passionate about maintaining high standards of welfare for the elderly clients under her supervision at a residential home. Her friends describe her as fun, caring and bold. At work, she’s been labelled aggressive.
“I was called her what she meant, and it came out that she felt personally attacked by what I was saying. I said that wasn’t the case, and that the observation I was making was broader than any one individual – and it was important, as it affected the health and welfare of those we look after.
“It was agreed I had acted in the best interests of the residents not just by management, but by the individual involved, and we laid the matter to rest,” she adds.
However, that phrase stuck, and Sally's apparent “aggressive” streak became a matter raised at every supervision. “It was frustrating because the situation had been dealt with very quickly, and I was on good terms with the person who originally labelled me as such,” she says. “I felt myself then having to repeatedly defend the same event to members of management. Pretty soon, it felt like an intentional move, and one used to try to get me to keep quiet and become more submissive.”
Lara, 29, is conscientious and compassionate. She has always tried to be clear and direct in the language she uses in emails when working in marketing for international clients. There was a logic to this: it ensured key messages were not lost in translation. However, when she moved into working solely for British clients, she was forced to change tack.
“When I was first called aggressive by a client in a meeting, I felt really guilty that I’d perhaps made someone feel bad. That was not my intention at all.” But Lara later became incensed when she discovered male colleagues weren’t being pulled up for using the same tone in their communications.
“I had to adjust my emails to include emojis and soften my language to appear more friendly,” she says. “The downside to this was that often work didn't get completed the way I wanted or wasn't prioritised. I found it really hard to be assertive without being direct. It’s hard to be a good manager and a productive team member while having to act like someone’s best friend all the time.”
The problem is that being called aggressive isn’t always a throwaway comment, but one that can have a real impact on the way women work, and are judged at performance reviews and, ultimately, in their careers.
Nicky Little is a director,” she tells AllBright. “It's very common, and it’s used as a wrap-around term to describe whatever is happening with someone’s behaviour, especially when women in leadership are coming across as assertive or confident.
What the adjective “aggressive” actually means, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, is “behaving in an angry and violent way towards another person”. Meanwhile, the more positive “assertive” is someone who “behaves confidently and is not frightened to say what they want or believe”.
“There is a gender bias about what is acceptable behaviour in the office,” Little continues. “Women are expected to be warmer and more nurturing. But they are also expected to demonstrate competence and be tough when they need to, without compromising on these attributes.”
This is incredibly difficult, especially as successful leadership relies on being clearly understood and freely saying what you feel without having to act out an assigned gender role at the same time. And perhaps it’s designed to be hard. Putting extra mental obstacles in the way makes leadership more difficult for some – which could then be an advantage to others.
There are countless studies that support the idea that gender biases make working life more difficult for women. More recently, a year-long study from Murray Edwards College at the University of Cambridge, Gender Bias in Workplace Culture Curbs Careers, revealed the issue remains pervasive across UK workplaces.
In the survey of more than 5,000 people, just over half (53%) of women said female colleagues were judged more negatively than their male counterparts when exhibiting the same behaviours. Only 18% of men said they had noticed this happening.
The research indicated that biased cultures were especially failing women of colour, with more than half (56%) of women from a black, Asian and minority ethnic or mixed race background saying their workplace culture “often” or “always” presented career advancement challenges for women, compared to 48% of white women.
Hira Ali, an expert coach, author and founder of several international development programmes to advance the leadership of BAME women, says being asked what to do if branded aggressive is one of the most frequent questions she deals with.
“Obviously being a woman first, and being a woman of colour, there are double challenges to face,” she tells AllBright. “The trope of the ‘angry black woman’ [rooted in 19th century American culture but still rearing its ugly head today – see this article about Serena Williams] will haunt you if you’re at all assertive or seen to be confident in your role.
“Meanwhile, Asian women are expected to be very meek, so if you become assertive you shock people too. In the end, what we end up seeing is women consumed by these internal barriers facing them at work. Many become so worried they end up not speaking at all,” says Ali. “That fear of stepping up, being hesitant to put yourself forward, really holds BAME women back at work.”
One of the most uncomfortable truths about falling prey to stereotyping is we have almost no control over what other people think. What we can control, however, is how we deal with situations – like being called aggressive – when they arise.
If you are caught out in the heat of the moment, says Little, the first thing to do is ask for specific examples and seek to understand where the aggressive label has come from. “Often when [the term aggressive] is applied to women it is vague, whereas with men it tends to be more direct and about something specific,” she explains. “Vagueness will not do. Otherwise you’ve got no way of rectifying this.”
“Think about responding as opposed to reacting,” says Little. “Take a quick pause. Acknowledge the point: ‘I’d like to understand what is happening here.’ Come from a place of empathy but not one where you are backing down: ‘Let’s diffuse this, let’s unpack it. Help me understand, because that is not my intent.’”
Little advises taking the issue away from the personal and towards a mutual professional goal by using inclusive language. “It is challenging, and for both parties what is really critical it is that you seek to understand and to be understood. It might be understanding how you lead, what they can expect from you. Something like, ‘We’re both here together to do the best job we can, let’s try and work it out.’”
No one likes being told that they've behaved in a way that has made someone else feel uncomfortable, but a little introspection may be needed to work out whether that person's appraisal of your behaviour is fair or true. If it's not true, the conversation should set you on a path to discovering what was behind the accusation and dealing with it accordingly.
If it is? Don't self-flagellate – investigate. “Most people aren't actually aggressive or angry people,” says Nicole Posner, Executive Conflict Coach and Workplace Mediator, specialising in the psychology of conflict. “The fact they have responded that way is that they've been triggered. If you're unaware of your trigger you aren't going to respond in the right way or change behaviour. “Behind every trigger there is an unmet need. In many cases, feeling not understood, heard or valued can lead to this behaviour as a result of emotions that have been brought up for you. Ask yourself: have you been aggressive, is it a one-off or a pattern of behaviour, or is there something deep-rooted going on, and would it be worth investigating further to find out what is behind it?”
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