Breaking the Stereotype of Women as 'Aggressive,' Together

Women in leadership need better support

Some label us threatening. Others combative. Most of all, we get labeled as aggressive. I’ve been called all of the above, plus so much more.

These are directed at women in leadership positions who do their jobs especially well. Over 85% of women in leadership I polled via Twitter said they had been called aggressive at some point in their career.

We experience it when we are career-driven, present ideas, remind the team of a set budget, share a concern or leave the room. Why—and how can we make it stop?

I’ve been called aggressive more times than I can count over the past six years while in leadership roles. It could be because I spoke up. Or spoke on behalf of the client. It was to do something that would benefit our team, company or our client. However, instead of being looked at as a positive, many felt I was pushing too hard, commenting when I wasn’t asked. It wasn’t “my place.”

Women have been conditioned by society and traditional office politics to be nice, be kind, to be the helper and peacekeeper while suppressing our emotional responses. Yet we have all watched as some men showcase their unrestrained selves and full range of emotions and they have been praised for their bravado, their fearlessness, their chutzpah—and interpreted as driven or passionate.

That’s why we need the He for She movement. We can’t change the behaviors of others without having male leaders show up on behalf of women. And it’s not just about saying that you want to see your women staff promoted, encouraged, etc. It’s calling out the behaviors like “manruppting” or “mansplaining” as it’s happening. It’s making sure the women on your team are heard. It’s giving women the opportunities they deserve.

At one point in my career, my male peers suggested to our CEO that because I was “too aggressive,” I should be let go. I was more of a threat than an asset. Luckily, I had a male CEO who saw the potential of my own skill set and abilities. And he recognized what my professional ambition brought to the table for the future of the company. I kept (and advanced) my position. Not every woman in leadership is so lucky.

It’s why we need brotherhood with sisterhood.

It wouldn’t have been possible without both men and women showing me their leadership styles, listening as I debated various approaches to problems.

We need people to remind us that we can be focused on our careers, we can want something better for our companies and we can be emotional and still lead. Let’s start by changing the conversation, even with just one word. Next time someone at your boardroom conference table calls a woman aggressive, stand up and remind them that assertiveness is a gift, confidence comes from competence and passion helps change culture and behaviors, and benefits the bottom line.