What about the non-“aggressive” women in tech?

Back in September, I flew to San Francisco to attend the inaugural Women in Product conference. Luck had been on my side to even get a ticket, after thousands requested a slot. Not only that, but I had just barely met the seniority requirement for attendees. I was thrilled to both get to learn about product strategy and get to discuss topics that were unique to our experiences as women in software.

In the lead-up to the conference, attendees were asked to fill out a survey asking about our professional experiences. Many of the questions were factual (asking about our backgrounds, the demographics of our companies, and more), but many, as you might expect, asked about how we thought being a woman had impacted our career. One page included questions about being called “aggressive” and “abrasive” at work.

As I read this survey, I reflected on the fact that I had actually had the opposite issue previously in my career. When I started at Microsoft, I was told that I too often sought consensus. I needed to be the one clearly calling the shots in meetings, or no one would take me seriously as a leader. Incidentally, I got this feedback almost exclusively from women in my management chain who had been labeled as “aggressive” or “abrasive” but had still managed to move up the ladder nonetheless.

During the introductory session at the conference, one of the organizers presented findings from the survey. It turned out that approximately 50% of respondents had gotten feedback that they were aggressive. Immediately after telling us these numbers, the presenter asked, “‘Aggressive’ — I mean, who hasn’t heard that here?” The sarcastic part of my brain responded, “Approximately half of us.”

Ellen Chisa and I at the Women in Product conference, representing Olin College class of 2010

Several times in the conference, the word “aggressive” came up in a manner that made it clear that the organizers still felt like getting that feedback in a gendered way was a universal experience. And, to be clear, it is a word (along with abrasive) that tends to have a very specific definition for women. Aggression is often just a thinly veiled way of saying “a woman who gives her opinion in a way I don’t like.”

Sheryl Sandberg has been a big proponent of women essentially ignoring this feedback in order to avoid self-sabotage. This is the central theme of her book on women in the workforce, Lean In. When women are punished in situations where men would be lauded, we have issues that need to be fixed. But she too, points to the experience of being labeled aggressive as being inherent to the process of becoming more senior. As she said in TIME:

When a woman excels at her job, both men and women will comment that she is accomplishing a lot but is “not as well liked by her peers.” She is probably also “too aggressive,” “not a team player,” “a bit political”; she “can’t be trusted” or is “difficult.” Those are all things that have been said about me and almost every senior woman I know.
Too often the focus is on simply allowing women to have a more stereotypically male leadership style.

There is an widespread assumption that a collaborative style of leadership is somehow inherently weak leadership. It’s an easy “fix” to embrace those women who already fit into the mold. In deeming this change sufficient, though, we leave behind the women (and men) who want to do things differently. We also, sometimes, end up lauding jerks.

That brings us to Uber. A former schoolmate of mine (Margaret-Ann) recently wrote a Facebook post about her emotional reaction to former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick’s resignation after wave after wave of bad PR, but most importantly after Susan Fowler wrote her now-famous blog post about the toxic culture there. Fowler’s story sparked an internal investigation that has led to at least 20 terminations so far.

In her post, Margaret-Ann reflects on the parts of Uber that have made her glad to have been part of the team. She talks about the impact of the company and the good it has done, but also how it gave her the space to be herself without being labeled as overly aggressive, as she had been in the past. In the comments, it sounds like many current and former women employees agree with her. (And some employees are even petitioning to bring Kalanick back.)

But if Kalanick did indeed make a culture where some women felt comfortable and welcomed for the first time, he also created a culture where Susan Fowler’s team went from 25% women to 6% women in less than a year. He created a culture where sexual harassment was essentially condoned, as long as the perpetrator was a “high-achiever.” He created a culture where top executives tried to discredit a rape survivor by stealing her medical records. At any company, you will find a variety of experiences. But the good experiences of some at Uber cannot and should not be used as way to negate the experiences of those who suffered from systemic failures. Uber made the easy fix — propping up women who acted like their (mostly male, mostly aggressive) leadership — while making it downright nightmarish for others.

We cannot make software a welcoming place for women without redefining and broadening what it means to be a leader.

At Microsoft, it felt like in many ways the feedback I was getting was a result of survival bias. My women managers knew how they had gotten to where they were: by adhering closely to the existing patterns of leadership and having thick enough skin to last until it became okay for women to exemplify those qualities. Therefore their instinct in coaching was to make me like them, instead of making space for people like me.

I stayed at Microsoft for three years, under several bosses, but I couldn’t escape the pressure to make myself into someone I wasn’t. I was supposed to spend inordinate amounts of time writing up my accomplishments in the form of status emails sent to carefully curated lists for proper visibility. I was supposed to avoid ever saying, “I think” or “I believe” in a meeting because it meant I didn’t have full control over my features. I was supposed to give my developer less of a platform for his opinions on our features (which I valued), as it gave the impression that I was not the one running the show.

I didn’t fit into that team’s vision of leadership, and I was absolutely miserable. Eventually it became clear that I would not be able to move up at Microsoft (at least on that team) without changing a large part of my core self.

In that situation and others, I’ve seen a spectrum of behaviors. Some “aggressive” women are direct and push on the status quo in a way that make them truly change-makers. Some women, knowing that aggression is often used as a weaponized term, write off the feedback entirely when self-reflection would be appropriate. The split is not that different for men, but male jerks are not usually called out on it.

In the time since I left Microsoft (and in my activism and volunteer work outside of my professional scope), I’ve been lucky to find environments where it’s okay to be collaborative, where I am measured more by my impact than by my style. It’s unfortunate that, in essence, I had to make the decision between becoming someone else or leaving my first job.

The women at the WiP conference and Margaret-Ann both spoke about their struggles with being called aggressive, but they were silent on what their success says about who was left behind.

Women should not endure unnecessary, gendered labels of aggression, but we also shouldn’t prop up aggression-focused environments as some kind of solution.

At Uber, that was particularly toxic, where a culture of a distaste for rules had ballooned into a situation where harassers could repeatedly step over the line of acceptable workplace behavior and were protected as long as they were high-achieving. Having some women like it there does not negate the experiences of those who were failed by Uber. It just doesn’t. Yet that is the way some people are deliberately choosing to view experiences like Margaret-Ann’s: as a counterpoint, not a supplement.

We should celebrate the women who break through gender bias, but at the same time not equate bad behavior with leadership just because the behavior is direct. Without reexamining the boundaries of leadership, we may make marginal gains for women, but that’s it. Without diversity of thought, we’re going to miss out on world-changing ideas. Without adapting our environments, we’re going to drive out talented individuals from the field.

If we’re going to truly make software a welcoming place for all — regardless of gender, race, religion, or other factors — we need to shatter the mold, not just try to push more people into it.