International Women's Day: A Strong Woman?
7 March 2017
With International Women’s Day upon us, it seemed prudent to look at a phrase that is commonly used to describe women in the world of work: a “strong woman”.
But what does that phrase actually mean? Surely, in this day and age where gender equality is expected (even if it is not always practiced) using words like that to describe a woman is redundant? Is it patronising to talk about a woman in so-called “macho” terminology.
I asked the business ladies of Twitter and LinkedIn to see what they had thought about how they were being described.
Karen Webber, marketing director at Axonn Media, said; “I think this is a great example of a phrase you wouldn't use to describe a man in the workplace, and as such shouldn't use it to describe a woman. "He's a strong man in the workplace." It's just not something you hear, is it, in the same way that dad don't get asked how they juggle work and their families, or aren't expected to dress in high heels!
Also, if someone "complimented" me by saying I'm a strong woman for overcoming challenges like bias, prejudice, challenges of raising a family etc, does that imply women who have made other choices - for whatever reason - are weak? That sits uncomfortably with me!”
However, Rebecca Newenham, founder and director of Get Ahead VA, said: “I don’t think the phrase ‘strong woman’ is patronising. Strong women are passionate, powerful women who work hard to get things done. You only have to look at the success of campaigns like #ThisGirlCan to see that strong women are valued as a positive force in our society.
“Woman can and do achieve the most amazing things through hard work, grit and determination. I count myself as a strong woman along with my award-winning team of virtual assistants. I am proud to work with a group of women who display many of these characteristics and make a real difference to our clients’ businesses.”
Dawn Maria France, the Editor in Chief of women’s news magazine, Yorkshire Women’s Life, had an interesting take on the phrase: “To me being called a strong woman in the work place is not patronising, although in the past colleagues have used the phrase 'she's a strong woman' when talking about an overbearing or disliked female manager.”
And I think, for most women, that is the fear about being labelled in such a way. Females in positions of authority in the workplace can often find themselves being criticised for being overly aggressive or picky, where a man would simply find himself being congratulated for his behaviour. It’s a very difficult line to tread.
Rachel Carrel, a tech CEO at Koru Kids, furthered this point: “To me, 'strong' in business doesn't have anything to do with shouting or bullying or treating people with disrespect. I'd call someone strong if they could give and take feedback, do what needed to be done, get over setbacks quickly. Humility is critical to strength.”
Sarra Bejaoui, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Smart PA, used the phrase to describe an entirely aspirational woman in business: “A strong woman has vision, and is extremely committed to whatever she’s passionate about. She puts first things first and doesn’t let others sway her opinion or focus. She continuously perseveres until she gets what she wants. Her natural assertive nature also means she’s accountable for all of her actions and words. If she makes a mistake, she would accept it, own up to it, and most importantly, learn from it.
“When leading a group or making decisions that might affect others, she uses logic. She makes sure that she listens to her intuition and empathise with people. With this innate ability to understand her peers, she can problem solve issues with clients, as well as smooth over any difficulties with staff.”
And it’s perhaps these key features, such as passion, accountability and empathy, that would make a strong business person – regardless of gender.
I realise that most women – myself included – can often feel unsure of themselves in the workplace. Natural doubts and self-deprecation are too difficult to bat away.
But we don’t need to prove ourselves, as “strong women” or otherwise. Simply doing your job to the best of your ability is enough. You don’t have to feel weak just because you’re not being aggressive. Look to shining examples of women in the workplace – be it your own or on the news. There are plenty of opportunities to be heard and to progress.
This International Women’s Day, meet, challenge and defy expectations. Be Bold For Change.
Written By Mary Palmer