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What ‘Watch Your Tone’ Really Means

How female leaders are still being penalized for not having a penis.

Photo by Mack Fox (MusicFox) on Unsplash

“You need to be very careful in client meetings,” one of my favorite strategic planners advised me early on in my advertising career.

“Everything you’re thinking is written all over your face,” she said.

She was 100% right.

As a neophyte copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather’s flagship office in New York City, I  struggled differentiating art from commerce. Like most junior creatives, I was passionate about doing the smartest, most creative work – often to a fault. And I did a horrible job hiding my frustration when clients – or colleagues – suggested we dumb down the ideas.

Much has changed in 20 years: I’ve developed a much better poker face. I’ve learned to hide my “are you fucking kidding me” expression behind a “no problem” smile. While I’ll always be a passionate and honest person, I’ve learned the importance (and necessity) in picking my battles. Survival in this business demands it. I’ve also gotten quicker at reading a room, and can temper my enthusiasm when the situation demands it.

Yet, no matter how much I’ve grown, softened or learned – one criticism remains.

I have been told to watch my “tone” more often than I can remember. And of all the outspoken, loud, arrogant creative directors I’ve worked for – I don’t know a single man who has been counseled on the same thing.

I can’t even imagine it happening. I often think about my past male creative directors, and try to picture them being brought into their boss’s office.

“Ross, we need to discuss your tone.”

“My tone?

“Yeah, you know – you come off a little too abrupt when you critique your team’s work.”
“Um, so?”

“Well, Susan had a rough childhood and she’s sensitive to that kind of thing. Do you think you could be a little less, intense…?

“Bugger off.”

Yet I had this exact conversation with a previous manager, about an insubordinate junior creative who was missing deadlines, blowing off meetings and generally behaving badly. And instead of reprimanding (or firing) said employee, my manager scolded me.

“Freddy can’t handle any kind of drama, so you need to adjust your tone to make him more comfortable,” I was told.

“Um, ok… do YOU adjust your tone depending on which employee you’re talking to?” I asked him.

It was ballsy, but I happened to know of several women who cried regularly in the restroom after meeting with him. So it seemed like a fair question.

“Sometimes,” he lied.

I felt lousy about the conversation for days, and wondered if he was right. I’m not afraid of confrontation and do hold people accountable to the job I’ve hired them to do. Maybe I could soften my approach.

“You realize ‘tone’ is just code for ‘you’re being a bitch,’” a male colleague told me at lunch soon afterwards.

As he said it, I could feel the anger rise in my chest. He was right. And worse than that, I had fallen for it.

I am not a quiet woman. I come from a loud, Jewish family with an attorney father who unconsciously taught my brothers and me how to stand up for ourselves and debate nearly anything. At first I loved the banter. But by college, I found the cultural trait exhausting and began limiting my time with friends who got off on the mental sparring. I learned to avoid confrontation and save my passion for moments that truly called for it.

But I am also a petite woman, who has always looked younger than her age. Which, while now is a blessing, made it easy for people – especially creative directors, producers and account people – to dismiss my opinion for much of my career. So I learned to speak a little louder, a little more confidently – and it helped. It apparently also made me an easy target for sexual discrimination.

When I first became a creative director, I fashioned my style on the few good bosses I’d had: who, like Ross, were men. Strong – straight to the point, but fair ­– men. They weren’t there to be my friend, or my confidant. We didn’t hang out at happy hour, or spend weekends golfing together. They didn’t care if I liked them, they were there to make the work better. I respected that and wanted to do good by them.

In my first senior management role, I tested out my authority like brakes on a new car. I soon learned I often overcompensated when I felt challenged.

“You’re the boss, Susan – you could whisper and they’d listen,” the agency owner reminded me.

Since then, I’ve adjusted and built several teams, hiring everything from college kids to previous partners to former bosses in need of a paying gig. I’ve maintained great relationships with many colleagues and employees – all over the world. I’ve had creatives cry when I’ve left, and interns take me dinner to say goodbye. I like my decisive but fair management style, and pride myself on the fact that my teams share my drive to have fun while creating award-winning work. But I’m not there to be their friend.

I’m not saying that my passion doesn’t get the best of me at times. I’m far from perfect and know when I’ve said something just a little too loudly or strong – usually a split second after I’ve said it. But what pisses me off is how often so many men do the exact same thing – if not worse – unapologetically. Yet they are rarely held to the same standard.

For as long as there have been leaders, there have been tough, abrupt – even downright obnoxious, narcissistic and rude leaders who have gotten away with it. Male leaders, like Julius Caesar, Steve Jobs and yes – Donald Trump. In fact, they’re often rewarded for their strength and conviction. Great leaders are respected, not loved, for their ability to lead.

It’s time female leaders stop being punished for the same behavior.

The truth is, people – both men and women – don’t like that kind of strength in women in the workplace. We say we do: we have conferences to encourage it, hashtags to tweet about it, and Oprah gives speeches on it. But strong, decisive women are still scary. And a threat to be taken down.

“Your team is a little afraid of you,” the same manager said, in an attempt to shame me into silence.

“So what?” I countered. “I’ve been a little afraid of every creative director I’ve ever worked for.” Again wondering if he’d dare share that same information with the big and tall, male creative director on our team.

I was disappointed, but not surprised, when my contract wasn’t renewed.

Perhaps it’s more acceptable for men to be aggressive or dismissive. Perhaps being scary in a 5’2” female package is somehow not expected – and therefore not allowed?

Fortune magazine’s Kieran Snyder noticed the same thing and did a little digging on the subject. In her article, The abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews, she found that certain words and phrases – like “watch your tone,” “step back,” “stop being so judgmental” – showed up only twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. Yet the same phrases were found in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.

Only 2, out of 83 reviews in men.

But 71 times, out of 94 in women.

That’s staggering.

“Men are given constructive suggestions. Women are given constructive suggestions – and told to pipe down,” writes Snyder.

The women were told things like, “You can come across as abrasive sometimes. I know you don’t mean to, but you need to pay attention to your tone.” And “Your peers sometimes feel that you don’t leave them enough room. Sometimes you need to step back to let others shine.”

I’ve been given the exact same type of criticism.

Sheryl Sandberg nailed it when she wrote about this in Lean In – we still want our women to be kind, gentle nurturers. Bossy is rarely used now, instead it’s “tone.” We’ve gone underground with semantics, but the implication is the same: Be nice.

We can no longer tolerate this. There are far too many amazing, strong female leaders being punished for having the balls to lead. And just as many smart, passionate women are silencing their voices for fear of being seen as too strong.

A brilliant, young strategist I know is one of these women. She recently asked me to be honest about her behavior at work.

“Does my demeanor seem like a beaten dog when I’m at work. If so, I need to work on that,” she texted me.

“I personally think you shouldn’t let them intimidate you.” I wrote back. “You are doing everything right. Don’t lessen your light to make them comfortable.”

Easier said than done, I know. But something has to change.

Reprimanding women for doing the same thing as their male counterparts is just as wrong and oppressive as any other form of sexual discrimination, which is defined as: “discrimination against an employee on the basis of sexual expectations and gender stereotypes”

We women are just as responsible as men, perhaps even more so, for this kind of prejudice. And I believe, as with any other type of discrimination, the first step in ending it – is noticing it.

Pay attention to how you talk about your female coworkers and bosses. Ask yourself if you’d use the same words to describe a man, and if not – why not? We may not like the feedback we’re getting from a manager, but if we’re more comfortable receiving it from a man – that’s discrimination.

And time is definitely up for that crap.

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