Aggressive. Abrasive.  These “A” words have become the “scarlet letter” of organizational life, the mark of blame given to so many women who display grit in the workplace. Once that indictment attaches itself to a woman’s reputation, it sticks to her like a tattoo and is about as difficult to remove. It’s stopped many a career in its tracks and muffled many a female voice.

Aren’t we over this yet? Haven’t we outgrown our grit-intolerance in women? Apparently not. A recent study published in Fortune compared the language used in performance reviews of both male and female high performers in the tech industry. The study showed that women receive much more negative stylistic feedback than their male counterparts. This is no surprise… except in the extent to which it is still true. Here was the researcher’s bottom line:

“In all, I collected 248 reviews from 180 people, 105 men and 75 women…  Negative personality criticism — watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental! — shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.”

Let’s put that into percentages: Negative feedback about personal style showed up in only 2.4% of the performance criticisms given to men, whereas it showed up in 75.5% of the criticisms given to women. This challenges the argument that implicit bias is a figment of women’s imagination. And lest we make this into a blame-fest of men, women and men provided this skewed feedback in equal measure. Our gender biases are a collective affliction.

Organizations are still preoccupied (dare I say “obsessed?”) with how women do what they do. Not only must women get stuff done, but they must look, sound and feel “just right” to us (whatever that means) while they’re doing it. And if they color outside of those invisible stylistic lines, they could spend their careers trying to pry that Scarlet A off their chest. Truly – it’s a lot of damn work.

Navigating this stylistic scrutiny is at the heart of the coaching I do with women executives. In the course of hundreds of coaching conversations, I’ve noticed a few core patterns.

1.  Stylistic bell curve.  Countless are the times a woman client has said to me, “Of course I have room to improve. But I resent being mandated to work with a coach for speaking too directly, when my male colleagues are actually swearing, pounding their fists and yelling at people in meetings. But I’ll bet you’re not working with them.”

Gaussian (bell) graphAnd, for the most part, she’s right. Most organizations view men and women very differently when it comes to style. Imagine a “stylistic bell curve” that captures a spectrum of behavior from the most assertive (“grit”) to the most affiliative (“grace”). Women consistently report that they must operate within a very narrow swath of behavioral territory right in the middle. They feel forced to maintain an elusive, razor-thin stylistic balancing point. Confident, but not arrogant. Passionate, but not strident. Attractive, but not sexy. Collaborative, but not wimpy. And if they stray from that tiny terrain, the Scarlet A of “aggressive” or “abrasive” is likely to come down on their heads. It’s a bit like leading inside an invisible fence, where the territory is small and the electric wires keep getting moved around.

On the other hand, organizations tend to afford men much greater stylistic leeway. They generally call foul on a man unless his behavior is out to the extremes. They generally don’t brand him as “abrasive” or “aggressive.” And rarely do they interpret his grit perceived as a fixed personal shortcoming. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m just saying that, at least according to the Fortune study, it happens about 3000% less often to men than to women.

2.  Bait-and-switch. Early in their careers, women, especially are often rewarded for grit traits, such as ambition, drive, critical thinking and toughness. In order to be seen as credible professionals, and later as “leadership material,” women must often  demonstrate a considerable degree of grit. They must prove that they can “hack it;” “keep up with the guys;” “show no weakness.” So women learn to hone and rely on toughness in order to succeed.

And then it happens. The Scarlet A arrives on their foreheads, and they never saw it coming. Often out of nowhere, women start receiving criticism for the very traits and behaviors for which they’d been praised in the past. My practice is full of women struggling to make sense of this wild shift in the winds of feedback and to navigate it before their career hits the rocks. To them, it feels like a real bait-and-switch of expectations, and seems to happen most predictably when women reach mid- to top-level leadership.

3.  Assertive vs. aggressive. I often hear women say, “There’s no winning. If you’re strong, you’re automatically considered aggressive.” I fully grant the heightened risk that women face of being negatively judged for their grit. At the same time, within these women’s own organizations, I see other powerful women who have NOT been branded with the Scarlet A. What’s going on there?

The powerful women executives I’ve seen who escape the Scarlet A are no pushovers. In fact, their styles may even be grit-centric. But unlike most of my clients, they also tend to have a good bit of grace online, which enables others to see them as assertive, rather than aggressive.  I’ve coached many women who were labeled as aggressive, and most of them shared a characteristic over-reliance on grit behavior, to the neglect of grace. Without the modulating effects of grace in a grit personality, the grit goes into a hyper concentrated form of itself, which I call “growl.” In each case, our coaching work focused on helping the grit-based women to reintegrate some needed aspects of grace. The result? Toughness with heart: an emergence out of growl territory into healthy, grace-infused grit style.

My observation is that when the Scarlet A befalls a leader of either gender, growl is usually present. This is not to minimize the fact that there’s still great gender disparity. Organizations will tolerate a whole lot more grit from men than they will from women. But whenever the term “aggressive” is levied, there is very often a valid invitation to cultivate a bit more grace.

4.  Burden and opportunity. The threat of the Scarlet A causes women to carry a heavy and unfair burden when it comes to style. Yet amid the burden, I do see opportunity. Just as pressure forms coal into diamonds, the stylistic pressure on women is creating a lot of transformative leaders whose example we all can follow. I see women leading the way into the kind of leadership that is needed in this world. They are the ones fighting for equality by holding both the lotus and the sword. They’re the ones calling bulls*%t while reaching across the aisle in cooperation.

And yet, is there any business or ethical sense in making women dance on the head of a stylistic pin at work? I hope that the Fortune study findings will wake all of us up to the fact that gender bias still exists and that we’re all participating in it. I hope organizations will hear this study as a call to take women out from under the stylistic microscope and hold themselves to a more equitable standard of feedback. I hope all leaders, whether male or female, will continue to challenge themselves not just to “tolerate” strong women, but also to embrace and invite the full spectrum of the power that women can bring.

 

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