That’s the feedback I received after interviewing for a Director of Sales role several years ago. At the time, the role would have been a lateral professional move. I held a similar sales and account management position at another company and had been recommended for this role based on my performance.
The feedback felt like a slap in the face, and a reminder of the double standards that exist in the workplace. Of course, the company didn’t want to hire a sales leader who was quiet or timid. The qualities I showed in the interview – backed up by my performance track record – were the very qualities the company claimed to want. I couldn’t help but feel that if I were a man applying for the same position, I would have been labeled “assertive” rather than “aggressive” and applauded for my confidence and go-getter attitude.
This echoes research from Harvard Business Review, which analyzed performance reviews for the phrase “too aggressive.” Of the reviews evaluated, 76% of all instances described women, and just 24% described men. The use of a phrase like “too aggressive” also reflects a larger problem regarding performance reviews and promotions. Vague feedback and nonactionable suggestions for improvement based on preconceived biases continue to hold women back. Word choice matters and can have profound implications on career advancement, promotion pathways, and earning potential.
From “Aggressive” to “Assertive:” Navigating Gendered Feedback
I’ll be honest, this interview feedback shook my confidence and made me question my performance. Did I interrupt constantly? Was I loud or shouting? Did I sound too ambitious when detailing my vision for improving the sales team? What was it about my demeanor that was such a turn-off? After reflecting on my performance and speaking with several colleagues and mentors, I realized it wasn’t about me. It was about the company and the people interviewing me.
I believe it’s always helpful to see yourself from someone else’s perspective. Constructive interview feedback can be a valuable tool in your job search – it helps you learn which aspects of your candidacy were most successful and where you can improve. Feedback can also tell you a lot about the company– and that’s exactly what it did for me. This interview helped me understand that the company’s culture was not the right fit. I didn’t want to be part of a company that labels strong female leaders as “aggressive.” I didn’t want to change my direct communication style or worry about colleagues policing my tone.
That’s why I’m so happy to now be at Lucas Group, a company where strong females are supported and applauded in their careers, rather than sidelined. As a recruiter, I’m passionate about helping strong, assertive female leaders find the right company for their career growth – a company that values their contributions and will invest in their future.
Why Word Choice Matters
We have a long way to go, and the pandemic hasn’t helped. One in four women had to downshift their careers or leave the workforce, according to Lean In and McKinsey & Company’s “Women in the Workplace” report. Last year, CNBC reported that 34% of men working remotely with children at home said they received a promotion, versus 9% of women in the same situation. When women are skipped over for a pay raise or promotion, this has a ripple effect on their career – constraining earning potential and hurting their financial future.
This is why a phrase like “too aggressive” matters. It’s the product of unconscious bias and often said in passing. The speaker may have meant no ill intent, but this phrase can instantly marginalize, undermine and minimize a woman’s accomplishments. And there’s no place for that in 2021.