Are gender labels holding women back?

Have you been called feisty, an ice queen or ballbuster just because you’re doing your job? If so, you’re far from alone. Research consistently shows that society continues to hold expectations of how women ‘should’ behave which aren’t always aligned with what will allow us to succeed in the workplace. When we don’t meet these expectations, the judgment can be harsh.

Think back to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who was labeled by the media and public as the ‘Iron Lady’. While some may argue there is a degree of respect reflected in that label, what it reveals is a belief that women aren’t typically strong to the point of being unmovable.

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Women need to be far more than the caring, warm, emotional and sensitive beings we’re generally expected to be. Bringing assertive, competitive, decisive, and rational approaches to work are essential for anyone to be successful, regardless of their gender. The problem for women is that behaving in these ways deviate from the social script that dictates how women ‘should’ behave.

Gender labels like ice queen point to the attitudes people often hold toward women in power and those who demonstrate so called masculine traits. Where their male counterpart may be regarded as assertive, driven, and focused on results, women with the same behaviours are often perceived as pushy and even bitchy. Men for example are often respected for having a so-called ‘no bullshit’ approach, women often aren’t.

Gender labels provide useful insight to why so many women continue to be overlooked for opportunities they deserve. The challenges of earning equal pay and accessing equal opportunity to advance their careers are made all that much harder by labels that encourage and reinforce discrimination, unconscious and other wise.

Gender labels can influence the way both a woman’s potential and performance are perceived. For example, when hiring leaders, it’s common for employers to look for traits typically regarded as masculine. The challenge for women is demonstrating their ability to bring these qualities to the role. Consider for example the woman who shows emotion in the workplace and is consequently cast as too fragile or unstable to lead.

While we all need to stand up and challenge discrimination, just as important is investing energy in doing what we can to enable our own success, irrespective of the prejudices people hold. Among the most important things women can do to succeed despite gender bias include these:

  1. Don’t buy the label. Choose not to believe in biased gender labels. See yourself as being capable of both empathy and objectivity, of being fair and firm, strong and flexible. Women are just as capable of holding people accountable and driving results as men are.
  1. Be you. The most likely path to success is one of authenticity. Of course we all have to conform to standards of dress and conduct reasonable people regard as professional. Within these boundaries however, its essential that you adopt a style and approach that works best with the person you are.
  1. Be balanced. Bring both the ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ aspects of your nature to your work and life. For anyone to be successful, thinking with our heads and our hearts, being empathetic and outcome focused matter. It doesn’t serve us to be overly emotional or too clinical in our thinking.
  1. Speak up. Women are more likely to allow self-doubt to hold them back from sharing their views. Never apologize for having an opinion; just take responsibility for how you go about sharing it. Be honest and sensitive, fair and firm, and most people will respect your approach.
  1. Put your hand up. Don’t wait for someone to notice your potential or guess at your career aspirations. Let the leaders you work with know what you are capable of achieving and what more you can contribute. Ask for the opportunities you want in your career and the support you need to get there.
  1. Take what you deserve. Women can be inclined to forgo opportunities for the sake of other people. Understand that all healthy relationships are based on give and take. Make sure you have enough to enable you to thrive in your life.
  1. Be bold. Avoid the mistake so many women make of believing they need to be more highly qualified or experienced than they in fact do to take the next career step. Have confidence in your readiness to take on a challenge and find the courage to ask for the opportunity.

Karen Gately is a leadership and people-management specialist and a founder of Ryan Gately. Karen works with leaders and HR teams to drive business results through the talent and energy of people. She is the author of The People Manager’s Toolkit: A Practical guide to getting the best from people (Wiley) and The Corporate Dojo: Driving extraordinary results through spirited people. For more information visit or contact

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