This article is part of a package produced by the Globe Women’s Collective around International Women’s Day and this year’s theme of #BreakTheBias
Ruth Zive remembers coming out of what she describes as a “spirited meeting” when a male colleague came up to her and said, “You shouldn’t talk so loud.”
Ms. Zive, CMO at Ada, an AI customer interaction company based in Toronto, has worked in marketing and tech for nearly two decades. She says she’s heard feedback like this in the past – mainly from men. She’s been told she’s too assertive and too decisive. She once was told she moves her hands too much when speaking.
Yet Ms. Zive has observed men speaking loudly and being assertive to the point of being aggressive. Once, a man at work yelled at her while standing on a table, pointing his finger right at her.
She labels the workplace personality dilemma as an “impossible conflict.” While she thinks the fact that she’s outspoken and opinionated has served her well – “I’ve been noticed and heard and given responsibilities,” she says – Ms. Zive has also faced criticism for her manner in the workplace.
“When men are outspoken, they’re not criticized, they’re just seen as visionary or passionate. We’re held to a different standard as women,” she says. “On the other end of the spectrum, women who don’t speak up and who aren’t assertive in meetings, they’re not promoted. So where do you land?”
It’s an issue faced by many working women. Being either too loud or too quiet can be career-limiting. Meanwhile, being subjected to microaggressions about their personalities can lead women to second-guess their abilities or try to change who they are.
Tracey Adams, professor of sociology at Western University, says this “Catch-22″ can be confusing for women with leadership aspirations.
“Traditionally, we have this vision of a leader as a man with certain kinds of characteristics: aggressive, assertive, achievement-oriented, competitive. Whereas our stereotypes of women are often that they’re more nurturing and supportive, maybe collaborative,” she says.
While these so-called female characteristics can contribute to effective leadership too, not everyone is up to speed about that, she says.
“We still have this idea that being a good leader [requires] these traditional male traits,” says Dr. Adams. “And when women do that, they’re not seen as being good women.”
The stereotype of the angry woman
Toronto-based writer and restaurateur Jen Agg – whose book title I Hear She’s a Real Bitch says it all – has had her personality and leadership style called out many times over the years, often on social media.
“I’ve spent decades watching men get heralded for things I’m criticized for,” she says of her direct communication style. “I’m literally just doing my job, and for doing my job there’s a double standard.”
Ms. Agg says her industry has sheltered egregious behaviour among men in power, including throwing things, swearing at staff and sexual assault. “I’ve done none of these things, but when you’re a woman, being a boss equals these things in some people’s minds.”
Studies back up what these women leaders say they experience on the job. A 2008 study in Psychological Science called “Can Angry Women Get Ahead?” found that observers conferred a lower status on women who expressed anger in a professional context compared to men. Meanwhile, they attributed women’s anger to internal reasons, such as her being out of control, while men’s were credited to external issues.
A 2013 study showed that women who are assertive and self-advocating suffer backlash, such as being perceived as unlikeable, while women who are not assertive and don’t advocate for themselves experience a “leadership backlash,” meaning they don’t get ahead at work.
Amrita Mathur is vice-president of marketing at Superside.com, a digital design company in Toronto. She remembers a previous job where she celebrated some recent wins and those of her team, and then asked her boss for more compensation. She was told that all she cared about was recognition and that she was being greedy.
“It was demoralizing,” recalls Ms. Mathur. She says her current employer encourages self-advocacy – even hosting town halls where people share their success stories.
With the rise of more digital communication through the pandemic, Ms. Mathur says she felt pressure to adjust her blunt, matter-of-fact approach. Her boss said her e-mail style “comes across like you’re barking an order.” He suggested she add emojis to her messages – something that he does. It worked: People responded more positively to her and sent their own emojis in reply. “Are other guys doing this? I don’t know,” she says.
While the emoji comment ended up being constructive, being called greedy haunted her when she asked for a raise last summer.
“I remember going through what I was going to say in my head,” she says. When she got her requested raise, she remembers wondering if she should have asked for more.
‘Microaggressions can take a toll’
Even years later, negative comments about a woman’s personality and leadership style can have impact, Dr. Adams says.
“What happens is women start second guessing themselves and start pulling themselves out of the running [for more senior roles],” she says. “We have researched that women in management tend to experience more depression than men. Some have poor health outcomes. These microaggressions and subtle battles can take a toll.”
Dr. Adams says race, sexuality and disability can further influence personality assumptions.
“What people expect from a white woman versus an Asian woman versus a Black woman is different,” she says. For instance, her studies show Asian women studying medicine face assumptions around passivity and what specialties might suit them.
Women who thrive in leadership jobs, despite the backlash, stay confident while taking in constructive criticism. Ms. Zive says she has improved her leadership style by asking around when she’s received negative comments from colleagues to see if she’s coming across the wrong way.
“I don’t think that’s a bad exercise,” she says. “I think that critical feedback shouldn’t be dismissed.”
Ms. Agg also strives to keep bettering herself. “I don’t claim to be a perfect leader,” she says. “I’ve gone through tons of growing pains.” While there are those who dislike her whistle-blowing on the industry’s double standard, Ms. Agg says she looks to long-time employees – many of which appreciate her style and feel cared for at work – for more reliable feedback.
In a job review a few years ago, one of Ms. Mathur’s colleagues wrote: “She vehemently represents her point of view.” Unexpectedly, they really appreciated it.
“Words like ‘aggressive’ were used, but as a positive,” Ms. Mathur notes.
Perhaps this is evidence that being yourself – even if that’s loud, confident and strong – is something to be valued in women leaders, not just in men.
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