Tough Cookie
Wrestling with Likability

Lee Miller by Man Ray

Three things I was called at work recently in the span of a week: “Tough cookie,” “taskmaster,” “slave driver.”

I have warm and respectful relationships with the colleagues who said these things, actually, and know they weren’t trying to hurt or offend me, but the names chafed. They seemed so negative, and not at all consistent with how I think of myself in my personal or professional life. I told my friend and co-worker Rebecca – someone who also might be called something like “tough cookie” – who tried to cheer me by saying that they all reflected positive attributes and was sure they were meant as compliments, even if they felt backhanded. “You’re organized, and you have high standards, and you keep people on task,” she told me, “and that’s great!”

I appreciated her (flattering) reframing, but the names brought on powerful feelings of self-doubt. That it was male colleagues who had called me these things increased my sense of insecurity. Something about it felt gendered (“you wouldn’t call a man a ‘cookie,’” Rebecca acknowledged). I wasn’t sure whether they would have used those names in response to the same behavior from a man. Is an organized, driven, direct woman doing her job necessarily tough, a slave driver, or a taskmaster?

There have long been words that, while ostensibly gender-neutral, are in practice applied only to women. This has recently been brought to the fore with the #BanBossy campaign, which describes a common scene to summarize their mission: “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up.” Bossy is a way of suggesting something demeaning and negative about women who are assertive or direct in way that feels in conflict with traditional femininity. Are terms like tough cookie, slave driver, and taskmaster in the same category?

More disturbingly, I wasn’t sure I liked someone who would be called these things. That this person was now me was problematic. The truth is that I might also have described a woman like me, only half-admiringly, as a tough cookie. It now struck me how undeserved this is. My outrage over the sense of a double-standard was real, but an inner sense of hypocrisy was, too. How I behave at work reflects an honest desire to hold myself and my colleagues to high standards, to take control, and to freely share my opinion – yet I flinched at the hint that this threatened their (and then my) sense of my likability. Tough felt so unfeminine, and fundamentally I still wanted to be seen predominantly as nice.

The self-doubt and the realization that I am capable of judging other women the very same way I was feeling judged are of course related. I was called willful and pushy as a kid. The feeling that I don’t know when to stop, that I was somehow too much has stayed with me into adulthood. I do think I have high standards. I am definitely deadline-driven. I have opinions, and am forthright about sharing them. I don’t consider myself punitive, difficult, unreasonable, or a pushover. The names I was called touched a nerve not only because their connotations are negative, particularly for women, but because they highlighted the disconnect between my behavior – which I had no problem with – and how I learned I was being perceived – which I did.

I wish knowing women and men are perceived very differently for the same behavior in the workplace didn’t leave me questioning whether that is what had happened to me. Being forced to contend with my own ambivalence about having “unfeminine” qualities has, however, allowed me to find some new perspective. When I asked my husband how he would react to being called tough at work, he said it would make him feel good; to him it was a compliment and an indication that others felt he had strong principles and stuck to them. The difference in our reactions was striking. I don’t want to feel bad about being an assertive woman, and I don’t want to be hard on other women for being the same way. The next time these words (or ones like them) are used on me, I’m going to try to do two things: first, ask what makes them think so. And second, attempt to see them not as overriding characteristics, or as as unfeminine negatives, but as qualities that make me good at my job and respected by people who know me and understand my values.

Photo of Lee Miller by Man Ray (1930)


    • leda

      “Tough by fair” does seem more complimentary (and less gendered) to me than “tough cookie.” Do you think women executives were judged by a different set of standards than you were?

  1. Paula

    It’s still early days, though, isn’t it? In the US, at least, we’re the first generation of women brought up with the assumption we will be equal participants in the workforce (whether true or not). Given how recently this began, I think things are changing pretty rapidly, really. I work in a predominately male field, and I tend to enjoy being just one of the guys (NB: this is different from ‘boys,’ and granted, it’s tech, not dock work). But overall, the older I get the less I care what other people think. I might choose to interpret “she’s a tough cookie” to mean “she doesn’t give a sh*t whether or not people think she’s a ‘tough cookie’.” Like you, I just want to do my job well.

    • leda

      It is early days… and yet I feel discouraged by some of the things I hear from second wave feminists in my life who observe that we are losing ground in many of the areas that they fought to achieve. The terms used in this piece are definitely all subject to interpretation, and like I said, I really do have respectful and affectionate relationships with the people that said them. Unconscious biases run deep, though. I’m sure I’ll never know exactly what was meant by the comments, and it’s possible the people that said them meant that as compliments! As my interaction with my husband at the end demonstrates, they can certainly be interpreted that way.

  2. Virginia Abbott

    Thank you for sharing, Leda! This piece really resonated with me. In high school, I was told repeatedly (mostly by boys) that I was “too loud,” presumably because I was outspoken in class. The criticism stung and I began making a conscious effort to hold back when I had an opinion. By the time I began working as a lawyer, the criticism I received most frequently had changed– now I was “quiet and “too nice.” Part of me rejoiced that I was no longer considered “loud,” but I also felt defeated once again. Lawyers are admired for their assertiveness and their ability to fight, qualities that once defined and that I appear to have squandered. I am very tired of being told I am too much this way or too much the other way. I would like to feel successful being myself.

    • leda

      Virginia, I know what you mean. As you probably could tell from the piece, I experienced some of the same feedback. I like to think neither of us has lost or squandered anything, but like you I recognize how hard it is just be yourself without worrying so much about what feels “appropriate” or right according to others.

  3. Eddie

    “The next time these words (or ones like them) are used on me, I’m going to try to do two things: first, ask what makes them think so. And second, attempt to see them not as overriding characteristics, or as as unfeminine negatives, but as qualities that make me good at my job and respected by people who know me and understand my values.”

    Your awareness – especially after feeling wounded – is what is going to make a difference as you process and progress. I know it’s all to easy to withdraw and submit to old norms or, possibly become aggressive. This isn’t who you are. So it’s your sensitivity – even as it tweaks your heart – that will show you the way.
    I love your clarity and openness. It makes me proud, and I continue to learn a lot from you.

  4. Hana

    Dear Leda, you are getting a dose of reality as to being a “boss” of someone else and a woman at the same time. You are handicapped by the distortion and discomfort of a male-dominated society coming to terms with the rise of feminine power. You could see yourself here as a warrior for the return of the Feminine to a struggling out-of-balance world, and bear the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” with a smile on your face.

    I am so proud of you…..

    I experienced you as a child not as pushy or willful, but as strong; stronger than me in the way you asserted yourself. this is not a negative quality; far from it, it is to be celebrated and admired. Enjoy it!

    Your solution of talking to people about it honestly is the path of power, resolution, and healing.


    • leda

      Thank you so much for your comment, and for clarifying how you saw me as a child. It’s true that I had my own narrative about what I was. Interesting to think about rewriting that in my own head!

  5. Meredith Watts

    It struck me that you wrote that you want to be viewed as “nice.” “Nice” and “good at what you do” are conflicting goals. Stick to telling the truth, trying for clarity, focusing on the task, and doing what’s right. The results take care of themselves.

    Besides, what good is nice? It’s a code for doormat, or bland and uninteresting. We girls in Charm School were told to be “nice” because we were the least important people in the room, and being “nice” was the way to get by. Forget it.

    • leda

      Totally, and I don’t disagree rationally… but irrationality, that part of me is real and occasionally fights for dominance, even when I wish it wouldn’t!

  6. I just got called, and I quote,” “bulldog -hit girl” Rebecca to “hammer” us.”

    Can we keep a list of things we get called? I find this mildly amusing / happy that this individual understands that I am the one making the decisions.

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