Are you “aggressive” or “assertive” at work?

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due to unconscious gender bias that all of us — men and women alike — carry with us in our subconscious, built upon outdated stereotypes of what we were conditioned to believes makes for a good man or woman.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:

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?