When Jill Abramson was fired from the New York Times recently, it attracted a great deal of media attention. Abramson felt she was not compensated fairly compared to her male counterparts. And as a result, the issue about equal pay was raised. But what distracted many of us from this important issue, was the fact that Abramson was not liked and was referred to by her employer as being “pushy”.

Whether or not she was a bad manager and was justified in being fired, the fact that she was called “pushy” has surfaced as a gender issue. In fact, in a recent article in The Atlantic, the author, Olga Khazan, cites a study done by Georgia State University linguistics PhD student Nic Subtirelu, who runs the Linguistic Pulse site. He gathered a random sample of 200 to 300 occurrences of each of the adjectives (pushy, stubborn, condescending, brusque) from the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a repository of 450 million words from fiction and nonfiction texts published between 1990 and 2012.

Subtirelu found that women were labeled “pushy” twice as often as men, and that men were labeled “condescending” more often than women. Pushy implies an abuse of power and condescending suggests the attitude of someone that already has power.

pushy graph

In The Atlantic article, Khazan states that women are labeled pushy because they are not expected to be assertive and when they do speak up for themselves it defies our cultural expectations for women.

In my work coaching high achieving women, I have also found that women who are assertive are often mislabeled as aggressive when, in fact, they are asserting themselves and not showing aggressive behavior. We are still dealing with gender bias around the expectations for men and women in the workplace. Women are expected to be passive and nurturing.

We need to redefine the expectations so that ambitious women can assert themselves appropriately and reach their highest potential without the negative judgment that “pushy” implies. When women assert themselves, they not only gain recognition and visibility for themselves, but their knowledge and expertise benefits the business. With this mindset, “pushy” becomes a positive adjective. When women state their opinions and offer solutions, they help push the business forward.