Pushy Vs. Pushover: How Workplace Labels Are Holding Women Back

photographed by Claire Pepper.
Women walk a high wire.
You’re told to be nice, but not too nice, or you’re perceived as a pushover. You need to push people harder, but not too hard, or you’re labeled a bitch. Be confident, but not too confident. Speak up, but not too loudly. If you ask your team for their opinion, you’re ineffective. If you don’t, you’re arrogant.
Is it any surprise most of us are left asking, who am I, and who do I need to be to be successful?
We have come to a place in the world where being tough, short-tempered, and having a lack of empathy for others represents power and leadership. It’s time to shift the paradigm. We need to move from this old-fashioned bullying style of leadership toward a more compassionate approach. With rampant stories of sexual harassment and workplace intimidation coming to light in every industry — tech, media, Hollywood, and politics to name a few — the time is now.
Advertisement
First, we need to take a closer look at the language we use—often subconsciously. In a The Telegraph article published earlier this year, writer Radhika Sanghani referenced 25 common words, like "feisty," "abrasive," and "bossy,"which on the surface seem innocuous, but are generally used only to refer to women with negative connotation. They’re rarely used to describe men.
This hidden sexist language also seeps down to ubiquitous workplace jargon. Male-centric lingo derived from sports, war, and machinery like “drill down” or “blocking and tackling,” acts to “reinforce the idea that the workplace is (or should be) a man cave with water coolers,” writes Mark Peters for the BBC. Deb Liu, co-founder of Women in Product, also argues that masculine words tend to imply more positive meanings or results — such as "manpower" and "right-hand man," whereas feminine words tend to suggest more negativity: such as "Debby Downer" and "prima donna." Liu cites a 2011 study which found that the gendering of everyday language can cause people to imagine a specific type of person in a role.

These stereotypes and gendered language are directly impacting a woman’s success.

Just look at the name-calling sideshow known as the 2016 election. From crooked to nasty, the monikers were tossed around without a second thought; that perception became reality and those labels stuck.
We need to take women out of the box; to stop using a narrow set of adjectives to describe her as a leader. These stereotypes and gendered language are directly impacting a woman’s success. If we do not allow for a broader definition of what makes women successful, how are women ever going to catch up to men?
Advertisement
Early in my career, I was often told that I was “too nice.” Like many women, I worried that if I acted decisively or in a straightforward manner, I would be perceived as critical, demanding, and yes, a bitch. My bosses and mentors warned me that if I didn’t develop a harder edge, people would walk all over me. That I wouldn’t be successful. So I tried to be tough. I tried to stifle my own empathy.
But, in the end, it felt fake and inauthentic, as if I were playing the starring role of “Fran the Tough-as-Nails Media Executive.” And, frankly, I wasn’t as effective in my job as when I did it my way. I learned that being nice wasn’t a bad thing.

I learned that being nice wasn’t a bad thing.

When I look back at seminal moments in my career, like becoming President of Digital at Time Inc. or Chair of GlobalGiving’s board, I reached these milestones by being good at my job and by getting the best out of everyone around me. That stems from kindness — the care and attention I place on people.
That’s why learning how to deliver negative feedback was, at first, a challenge for me. I was a 27-year-old manager at Coca-Cola Enterprises and made sure my team knew that I was invested in them and their careers. It was all sunshine and rainbows until the first time I had to address a problem with someone’s work. It made me uncomfortable. I avoided it.
When I finally dealt with it, I framed the conversation in an empathetic way, saying I wanted to better understand why my colleague was having challenges with turning in work on time. In turn, she revealed the truth behind what was happening — that she was struggling with the writing section. I didn’t berate her; I didn’t tell her I expected better. I found out the root problem and together we solved it.
Advertisement
As I grew into leadership roles, it came as no surprise that women consistently asked me the same question: “How can you be so nice… and still be successful?” They felt caught in the double bind between being nice and strong at work — by being typecast as one or the other — just like I had been early in my career.
Even Hillary Clinton struggles with this. She often speaks about how hard it is to be ambitious and likable. Why does it have to be one or the other? I challenge the stereotype that kind women aren’t ambitious, don’t speak up for themselves, are indecisive, and fail to set boundaries.
Women are multi-layered — we’re not one thing at all times. And we shouldn’t be described as such. We can be softer when an employee is in need; loud when we’re not being heard. We can defy labels and succeed on our own terms. Women should be allowed to have edges and curves. We need to embrace our natural strengths and succeed on our own terms.
The truth is, you can play the role of the big bad boss, play into the labels, and get the corner office or you can be your authentic, kind, unique, and ambitious self and also get the corner office. Which would you rather be?
Fran Hauser is a long-time media executive, startup investor, and celebrated champion of women and girls. She's held senior positions at some of the world’s largest digital media businesses, including Time Inc.'s People, InStyle, and Entertainment Weekly as well as AOL and Moviefone. Now an angel investor who largely invests in female founders, Fran was named one of Refinery29’s “6 Most Powerful Women in NYC’s Tech Scene,” and has been featured by CNBC, Forbes, Vogue.com, Ad Age, and more. Fran’s forthcoming book, The Myth of the Nice Girl, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in April 2018.
Advertisement