by Pat Heim, Ph.D.

Early on in my career I worked in a Fortune 500 company and ran an executive trainee program. Each year I received about 120 applicants for this Staff Associate program and each had 3 letters of recommendation attached.

One day while perusing these letters on a plane I realized that the adjectives in the men’s letters were significantly different than the women’s—dynamic, go-getter, rainmaker vs. helpful, kind, trustworthy. I was so amazed at the consistency in the differences of the descriptors I asked my seatmate, a total stranger, if he could identify the gender if I read just the adjectives and sure enough he could. But there was one word “Super-Word”; it was in virtually all the male letters and in none of the female letters. Can you guess what it was? “Aggressive”! All the men were aggressive but none of the women were. If it was so important for men to display this quality why weren’t the women flaunting their aggressiveness front and center? Maybe because it’s code word for, well you know, bitch. The Center for Creative Leadership helps us understand this dilemma with some of their great research. They found that both male and female executives must be aggressive BUT men can display aggressiveness in a wide variety of ways. Women must be aggressive but within a narrow band of acceptable behavior and it’s when a woman gets outside this narrow band of acceptable behavior that the problems begin. Then women ask me to just tell them where the bands are “So I won’t get myself in trouble”. That’s a problem though because those bands are in a different place in New York City vs. Idaho, in the health care industry vs. construction, in one corporate culture vs. another. So successful women must push up against the bands but not go over them or risk getting the damaging label. The reality is we do have a double standard.