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Enough of tough

Most women know what 'tough' is code for - and it's not a compliment. Calling a man tough is flattering; calling a woman tough is an intentional put down.

'Enough' is a regular column calling out the kinds of behaviour that don't have a place in today's business world. 

While most of us – women and men – know how to treat others fairly and with respect, some of us don't. Whether this behaviour is obvious or subtle, if it goes unchecked it sets a tone that is unhelpful for women, and uncomfortable for many men. As the saying goes, the standard you walk past is the standard you accept. Using a series of real but anonymous examples, 'Enough' aims to shed light on what needs to change in our workplaces, while encouraging each of us to recognise when it's important to draw the line. Because we all know that policies and rules alone can’t make this stop. It’s up to all of us to say ‘enough’.

The situation outlined below is typical of what many senior women face.

It was a high-level ‘meet and greet’ arranged by a senior woman to introduce a few of her colleagues to some of her former employers from overseas.

So it was a shock when one of her current colleagues, after being introduced to the visitors, commented that having worked with her, they must know she’s ‘tough’.

Most women know what 'tough' is code for – and it’s not a compliment. Calling a man tough is flattering; calling a women tough is an intentional put down. A tough man is fair but firm and a sound leader; a tough woman is humourless, ruthless and unfeminine.

In this case the comment did not go unchecked. The senior woman asked her colleague what he meant by the comment and he quickly scurried out of the room.

You don’t have to go far to find examples of the tightrope women leaders usually walk, particularly in high profile roles such as politics or the senior ranks of business.

Women in leadership continue to face a trade-off between being successful or likeable, as Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg pointed out in her best-selling book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.

Gender stereotypes and the norms around behaviour in the office have shifted a little but nowhere near as much as most of us would like to think. Despite more women gradually climbing the ladder and taking on more responsible roles, the experts and research shows gender bias remains prevalent.     

There’s been a steady stream of studies concluding that no matter how well they perform, women are assessed very differently to men in the workplace which has a serious impact on their progression and in situations such as pay negotiations.

According to a 2003 US study, quoted by Sandberg in Lean In, professors at Columbia Business School set up one group of students to read a case study about an actual entrepreneur named Heidi Roizen, which describes her career as a successful venture capitalist. Another group read the same story but the name of the entrepreneur was changed to 'Howard'. When the students were asked to rate Howard and Heidi on their accomplishments and their appeal, Howard was deemed to be likeable while Heidi seemed selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for”.

Australian studies have found that the way women approach their work and their style is often seen as less effective than their male colleagues – despite achieving the same results. A report by Chief Executive Women and business advisers Bain & Company in 2011 found most men believed women did have a different approach to them in the workplace but didn’t believe it impeded their progression. Most women surveyed, however, believed it had a negative effect on their prospects.

Labelling a woman as 'tough' is signalling to her that she has stepped outside the boundaries of acceptable female behaviour – and may have already have a difficult reputation.

As long as women remain in the minority in authority it is difficult to normalise them as leaders, and so legitimise different styles of leadership. Until that happens, successful male leaders are far more likely expected to be assertive and authoritative. Women, meanwhile, have to work out how to be both firm and nice to avoid backlash while living up to higher standards of caring, empathy and collaboration.

When deliberately loaded language is used to put a powerful woman in her place it's not OK to ignore the behaviour, nor these difficult and unfair differences in expectations.

Enough of tough.