Have you been called “aggressive” at work? [VIDEO]

It’s one of those words that stops a woman leader in her tracks.

Is that a good thing?

Am I being complimented or critiqued?

Isn’t that what leaders are like?


It is such a loaded term because it’s commonly misconstrued with a similar (but critically different) word: assertive.


The ability to be assertive is essential to leadership. Leaders have to be able to say no, raise concerns, put forth a new idea, and make things happen that otherwise wouldn’t.


Being assertive means being forthright about your wants, needs, and rights while being considerate of the wants, needs, and rights of others.


Being aggressive, on the other hand, means you’re still forthright about what you want, but without consideration of the rights of others.


Whether you’re a man or a woman, being assertive is part of being a leader. Being aggressive means being a bully.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple for women in the workplace, who are too often labelled as aggressive for behavior that is truly assertive. This is in large part due to unconscious gender bias that all of us – men and women alike – carry with us in our subconscious, built upon outdated stereotypes of what we were conditioned to believes makes for a good man or woman.

One of my favorite feminists, Nicki Minaj, breaks down how this mislabeling this feels in action:

Nicki Minaj – Bossed Up // Kinetic Typography from Olivia Brodbar on Vimeo.


Even though we may not share the same challenges that a pop superstar does, being called aggressive for behavior that is assertive happens to many of us.


One of my advisory board members, a professor at a business school, was called up by her department head to ask her opinion on the potential promotion of a female colleague. Though she was demonstrably high-performing, the head honcho had heard that some of colleagues though she could be “a bit aggressive.”


My advisor paused, read off the definitions of assertive vs. aggressive, and asked again, “Do you think she’s really being aggressive? Or perhaps just assertive?”


The phone fell silent for a moment before the department head asked, “Can you say that one more time? I’m writing this down. I’ve never heard it put that way before.”


We don’t discriminate enough between these two charged adjectives and we must. It’s easy to mis-use “aggressive” in a way that does lasting damage to women leaders’ reputations. Research has shown that women at work are expected to demonstrate that they are “good team players,” or risk being seen as “selfish” or “bossy.”


We can all start to change the conversation by being mindful about the words we use.

Know the difference between “assertive” and “aggressive” and be the one to call them out when you see anyone being maligned for behavior that might otherwise be applauded.


More often than not, you’ll probably be coming to the defense of a woman on the rise.


Have you ever been labeled as “aggressive” when you were just trying to get things done?

I want to hear from you. Share your story in the comments below and tell me this: how do you think we should go about changing the status quo?


The Job Search have you feeling frustrated? overwhelmed? stressed?
GOOD NEWS: you don’t have to go it alone.


Hired Job Search Program



  1. Rana Mamdouh says:

    hi, first of all thank you for the amazing video! i agree with you.
    lately i received a termination from my job (for the first time in my life) , my then boss said i am too Aggressive, which was because i requested our rights as it was a start up company we were all freshly hired, after 6 months of probation period (which was 3 in our signed offers and he decided to extend it) he refused to provide any of the benefits he promised us, we didn’t have contracts, no medical nor social insurance, he randomly changed our working hours and was even pushing to increase the weekly working hours by 10 whole hours without any change in the salary! moreover, he hired us all on a salary lower than average on the accounts that after the probation period there will be an evaluation and our offers can be renegotiated, as it is a start up and he needed to start small so we should help out to be a part of something great in the future bla bla bla… .we all agreed to take a chance on being the pioneers in a promising business. but unfortunately he failed to sign any new contracts so he started to change all the discussed benefits. i was the one (generally) to speak out about our benefits but after discussing it out with all my colleagues because i wasn’t talking just about myself, on the contrary i was always standing up against him to argue the rights of fellow colleagues he would wrong or misjudge. i asked my colleagues about their honest feedback, so i would benefit from the whole situation, they all agreed he did that just because i am the one who spoke out, i even discussed this point with him in my exit interview, he denied it totally even though he praises my work and says he thinks am even over qualified but its not all about performance! i was going crazy trying to figure out where i did wrong until i saw your video, please let me know what you think, thank you

  2. Brook Bellarose-Babcock says:

    My boss told me I was aggressive and condescending for holding a very high vendor accountable to their promises. I was truly shocked and hurt, having a degree in psychology I’m very aware of my tone and approach. I’m truly not sure how to handle the situation and feel that the dynamic between him, the vendor and myself is skewed against me.

    • Emilie Aries says:

      I’m sorry to hear that, Brook. Often that kind of feedback can be imbued with unfair – while unconscious – gender bias. Ask your boss what they meant by that feedback and explain your intent behind your actions. Would they have handled the situation differently? How?

      Some research even suggests being explicit about bias in these cases can help you – for instance, saying to your boss, “Listen, I know that as a woman being assertive and exhibiting leadership characteristics isn’t always well-received, but I’d so appreciate your feedback on how I can represent our brand well despite that.” It shows you’re being a prudent and respectful team player while also acknowledging systemic bias can get in the way. Maybe you’ll even educate along the way. 🙂


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *