Are women held to different standards than men at work? Nicky Little comments in this article by Jenn Selby in Allbright’s Edit .

For women in the workplace, 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, director at leadership specialist Cirrus, 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.

What To Do If It Happens To You

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.

Ask For Specifics

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.”

Respond Rather Than React

“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.’”

Use Inclusive Language

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.’”

© Allbright Edit 2020.

Read this article in full on the Allbright website.

Read more insights from Nicky:

How can more women in finance move beyond middle management?
Tips on breaking through to the boardroom
International Women’s Day: How can retailers avoid tokenism?

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