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Pushy vs. Assertive: Why These Words Matter

Prior to becoming president of Johns Hopkins Medicine International, I worked for 15 years in human resources, where I became highly attuned to biases in the language we use in the workplace to describe men and women.

As a quick exercise, which of the words in these pairs might describe women? Pushy/Assertive. Emotional/Passionate. Abrasive/Direct. Bossy/Strong-minded. Whether it’s from unconscious bias or downright sexism, women are more frequently described with the first adjective in each set, the modifiers with negative undertones. My male sixth-grade teacher took me outside our classroom and told me I was too bossy.

When women assert our self-confidence, command respect or take a risk, we jeopardize our professional standing. In turn, this unfairness adds another barrier to our advancement on the corporate ladder.

Should women change to make our authority and expertise more palatable for others? Of course not. It’s time we change the norms that stifle women’s contributions in the workplace.

Along my own unlikely professional journey, here are some of the ways I’ve tried to stay true to myself while also laying out a path that has led to my dream job as JHI’s chief executive:

• Say no. We’re all moving a million miles a minute to keep up with the demands of our jobs. Not everything holds the same value. Too often we say yes to tasks that waste our time or talent. Our productivity suffers, and we spend less time working on our own goals. Saying no isn’t selfish, it can help us prioritize our short-term needs so we can add more value and help others in the long run.

• Say yes. Say no to the little things that steal your time and sap your happiness. But for the big things, always say yes, even if it’s uncomfortable—especially if it’s unconformable. Stretch your comfort zone and overcome your insecurities. It’s easy to say no when an opportunity looks daunting, or when you feel like you've already pushed yourself as hard as you can. But saying yes opens up new paths toward success.

• Keep growing. Twice in my career, I have left jobs at the top of my field to start over and do something totally new. If you’re not being challenged, and if you’re not learning something new at your job, re-evaluate. Don’t settle. And don’t ride the tide to the next paycheck or to retirement. You owe it to yourself to find a job that continually excites you and pushes you to think and grow.

• Speak authoritatively. Research shows that women in the workplace speak less, get interrupted more and suffer harsher scrutiny than our male counterparts. There are already so many external forces trying to minimize our voice, we need to make sure we’re heard. I have always had a big voice, and I aim to use it with confidence. I try to avoid qualifying words—maybe, kind of, sort of, possibly—and I try not to apologize before I speak. I also have a rule that if I am in a new meeting, I must contribute something meaningful. This is especially true if I’m the only or one of a few women at the table. We must show that we have value to add.

• Be big. Men tend to take up more physical space than women due to stature, posture and the simple fact that there are usually more of them in meetings. Women also need to “own” space in the workplace. We can sit at the table, stand when we speak, join conversations, lean in, introduce ourselves, walk to the front of the room. To flip the old saying on its ear: Women should be seen AND heard.

• Meet new people. Do you know the saying, “I’ve never met a stranger?” I love getting to know new people because they introduce me to ideas and opportunities. My mother said I got this trait from my father. We all look at things differently. I discuss important ideas with my polar opposites so I can gain a perspective into the other side of the discussion. This has helped make me a more open person and leader. Lastly, I truly believe in broadening our circles and creating strong networks of friends and associates who are experts in different fields.


Pamela Paulk

As president from 2015 to 2018, Pamela Paulk oversaw Johns Hopkins Medicine International’s enterprises, including developing sustainable international health collaborations with affiliates in nearly 20 countries and providing medical concierge services for thousands of international and out-of-state patients.

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