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Re-writing Labels

Bossy, emotional, aggressive, confrontational, pushy, bitchy…we’ve all heard them be used in the workplace and some of us have had them directed at us. All are received as negative when describing a woman.

In 2016 a journalist at a national newspaper wrote an article about how gender labels are holding women back in the workplace. Based on an interview with Margie Warrell, who worked in large corporate companies like KPMG and BP before becoming an executive coach and the Ambassador for Women in Global Business, the article centres on how workplace culture often works against women trying to make it to the top.

Here’s what she said, and do we think things have improved or do we think these points still ring true…?

‘Women are perceived differently in the workplace,’ she explained. ‘Even women have a gender bias against women sometimes. It’s not always conscious; it’s shaped by the norms of our culture. Sexist assumptions and unfair labels are holding women back in the workforce.’ 

Ms Warrell says that because of this, when women behave the same way as men would in the office, they are labelled and perceived negatively.

‘We, as a culture, think women should be nice and gentle and take care of people. When you defy that norm you get branded as bossy, yet when that behaviour is exhibited by men it’s seen as acceptable and normal.’

Women get branded as bossy, bitchy and assertive when they stand up for themselves or don’t display typically ‘feminine’ traits, making it hard for them in the workplace. 

‘There’s a lot of research that shows that for women, if we’re seen as competent, we’re not seen as likeable, and then if we’re likeable we’re not seen as competent,’ Ms Warrell said. ‘But men don’t have that problem. It’s a double bind.’ 

She said that this has serious impacts on women, including their ability to move up the ranks and have their opinions taken seriously.

‘Men are promoted far more for their perceived potential, whereas women get promoted on their performance,’ the executive coach said.

Part of the reason for this is the assumption, often incorrectly, that women will want to quit their jobs or dial down their careers once they have children.

She said she had one woman who had applied for a promotion. Despite being more qualified, she lost out to a male colleague eight years younger than her, partly because she had just been married and it was assumed she wanted to have children.

Ms Warrell coaches many women to counter these assumptions and be able to progress further in their careers despite sexist stereotypes. Here are some of her action points:

Say what you want

  • To counteract assumptions about women’s lack of ambition, they need to talk about what they want, even if this is difficult. They have to clearly communicate their aspirations and make it explicit if they want to move up. If they’re not seeking opportunities, not asking for what they want, their employers will assume they’re happy.

Know your worth:

  • Women don’t often ask for pay rises in negotiations – if you don’t ask, you can’t expect to be considered. We need to be brave and bold and say what we’d like. Own your value and have a sense of what people are being paid in similar roles in the industry and around you, and ask for more money.


  • Another common issue is women having their ideas dismissed in meetings, only for a male colleague expressing the same opinion to be praised. Call it out when it happens. Say, “Excuse me, just for the record, I said that 20 minutes ago”. Be gracious but firm.


  • As stated above, men are more likely to be promoted based on what they could do in the future, whereas women are promoted based only on what they can do now. Don’t be stepped over but don’t rip shreds off people. Sometimes we get intimidated, especially if you’re a woman who is moving up the ranks.

Never apologise for having an opinion

  • Find the courage to speak your mind. Don’t apologise for having an opinion. Women apologise far more than men, simply for voicing our thoughts

Production executive at Apple TV, and former BBC production executive and leadership and wellbeing coach, Jackie Myburgh, was the keynote speaker at the 2019 Women In Sport Business Speaker Series, run by SB Connected (and sponsored by Perform Group and BBC). She spoke about busting myths and reframing labels, something I believe we all need to do and a topic which touched a nerve in most of the attendees.

What do you think about the below re-labelling? Do you think things have improved since the article in 2016 and SB Connected’s event in 2019? We would love to hear your stories.

  • Bossy – a boss
  • calculated – strategic
  • emotional – passionate
  • aggressive – persuasive 
  • confrontational – strong
  • Flirty – charming
  • selfish – ambitious
  • obstructive – sensible
  • Competitive – career driven
  • Bitchy – Speaks mind
  • assertive – bold
  • Outspoken – direct

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