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How Our Idea Of “Strong Women” Unintentionally Hurts Female Leaders


Like other “compliments” women receive, “strong woman” does more harm than good.

I don’t mean to bite the hand that gives me this platform, but the phrase “strong woman” sets my teeth on edge.

My implicit-bias antennae start to buzz anytime I hear or see “strong” paired with “woman” to describe a leader who happens to be female. You don’t have to look very far in the business world to find that. It pops up in casual conversations about individuals, the names of networking groups, accounts in the press of female leaders and entrepreneurs, self-help articles, anddescriptions of female roles in TV and movies.

The intent, of course, is praise, but the implication is that most women—by definition, and unlike men—are delicate flowers above which only a few hardy shoots will rise to warrant the “strong” label.

The Strength Of Words

Gloria Steinem called this linguistic differential the “politics of the unnecessary adjective” when I asked for her take on the use of “strong women.” She observed that in general, the lower-power group requires an adjective, but the group with greater power takes the noun, “as in ‘women artists’ versus artists, ‘black poets’ versus poets, ‘lesbian novelists’ versus novelists—and so on.”

Like other types of supposed compliments that do women more harm than good, it’s time to remove this irksome adjective from the way we talk about women in leadership, for the simple reason that it prevents more women from getting there.

My grandmother used to say, “Gloria’s so good, you don’t know you have a child around.” She meant it as praise, but the message I got was that being quiet and invisible was “good.” Having a voice was not. Though I’ve since been privileged to speak in venues from the grassroots to the highest halls of power, I remain reluctant to start conversations, and I still sometimes feel reserved, even around family members I love dearly.

When a man tells me he was brought up by a “strong woman” in order to establish his feminist creds, I wonder what woman who ever raised a child was anything other than strong. He may not actually believe that women are inherently not strong, and those who are must be unique, but that’s the sense his words convey; intentionally or otherwise, language shapes us like a scalpel. It draws boundaries around us, and creates meaning for us.

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