Does this sound familiar? Anyone been a target of this during their career tenure?
If you have, you are not alone in this.
More women than men are labelled aggressive. If you are a woman who is vocal and has an overt point of view, you are likely to be labelled aggressive and written off immediately. And if you are a man doing the same, you are likely to be called a passionate bloke with a ticket to go places in your career.
So yes, these labels come with a price tag. There are implications of how we come across or how we are perceived. This and other dichotomies are especially harder on women. At every point, their behavior is being watched and analysed to the extent we are waiting for them to fall. If women don’t show these streaks of being outspoken, they are perceived less intelligent, less capable, or without a mind of their own. Speak up, and they are called too aggressive or emotional and hence incapable of progressing.
Call these biases or stereotypes, there is no denying their existence.
Interestingly, this respective labeling has its roots in our society and in our socialization practices. Our early experiences have created working models of how girls, women, boys and men should behave. Beginning in childhood, and globally, we ingrain in young girls the importance of being polite, being nice, congenial, and not loud, etc. We expect them to have a listening ear so they can drive consensus, collaboration, and get things done in a quiet calm manner. The reverse is true for boys. Be competitive, have a loud point of view, and aggression is completely acceptable- a sign of boyhood.
Overtime, stereotypes begin to take roots and manifest across the board in all situations. We expect the genders to behave in distinct manner. And when these behaviors go against our mental models or stereotypes, they create a sense of dissonance in our minds. We are not ready to accept them easily. Researchers call this phenomenon a stereotype threat. We don’t like to see boys crying or girls being rambunctious, do we?
But having said all this, does it make it right?
Should we just adhere to these distinctions that limit us and our careers?
Should we ask women to be not aggressive? Take anything that comes their way?
Tell them to “smoothen their elbows” or “don’t be emotional” because it doesn’t align with the norm? Hold this against their progression?
Personally, the answer is a no. We have to respect people’s emotions, and yes, at work too. Because work and deliverables are totally laced with emotions.
But having said that, emotions have be seen from a contextual lens. Very rarely does an individual show extreme emotions without being provoked. So if someone is being called “aggressive” or “passionate,” my guess would be that someone pushed or led that individual to that limit. Perhaps her colleague is refusing to take her point of view, is undermining her capability, or the woman herself believes that aggression or assertiveness kind of an expression is warranted at that point in time?
Regardless, this issue has to be taken seriously as it can make or break one’s career. Based on my experience and learning here are some practical tips to manage this.
1. Let’s acknowledge that aggression, assertion, or other emotions all are basic to human beings. They cannot be segregated from logic, decisions and outcomes. Man or a woman, you cannot simply leave emotions at your desks when you go to a meeting.
2. As aforementioned, emotions have to be managed or regulated. You cannot be authentic blindly! If you know aggression or any other form of emotion can hurt you, avoid an expression of those. Be strategic.
3. And if you are already stuck with a label which is doing you no good, actively and deliberately diffuse that by talking to people and showcasing behaviors you want people to attach you with. Hold your ground with facts and data to back your claim. Leverage the help of colleagues, mentors and your well-wishers.
4. The next time you are called aggressive, challenge that statement if you truly don’t buy it. Ask why the individual sees you that way and what is needed to manage your career positively.
5. As leaders, avoid gender stereotyping by removing your own biases. Refrain from labeling people in the first place. And if you are truly concerned, talk to the individual and offer constructive feedback and how they can change the situation for themselves.
6. Let us all replace the term aggression or assertion with passion. Color code women with the same expression like we use for men. “You are so passionate about your work, you will go places.”