Tough business women need to be celebrated
HR Business Partner

Written by Marnie Brokenshire

August 20, 2022

Sometimes it’s hard to hear feedback about how we are perceived by others – but what a gift this knowledge can be – imagine not knowing.

Adaptability is a core emotional intelligence competency and feedback is central to growing this capability. I understand the need to leverage credibility to influence, so I regularly seek feedback, from those I trust and those I don’t.
This is why I know exactly what people think of me, or if we are going to be very base about it, I know I have a “reputation” for being tough and unrelenting. I’ve also been called; “the rottweiler with lipstick“, “the toe cutter“, “the perfumed steamroller“, “scary” and “unapproachable“, to name a few.
I have always worn the ‘tough, unrelenting’ reputation as a badge of honour. Early on in my career, an esteemed CEO said to me; “lean in to it, own it, you having this commercial mindset is what businesses need from HR, and it will make you worth every penny“. So I did and I do.
Let’s understand what people seem to not like so much about tough women.  The Oxford definition of tough is: strong enough to withstand adverse conditions or rough handling; able to endure hardship or pain; endure a period of hardship or difficultyThe definition of unrelenting is: not yielding in strength, severity, or determination.

“Tough HR women, and women who are tough in business generally, should be applauded not admonished.”

So why is my “tough and unrelenting” reputation a bad thing for some people? I will tell you; a) I’m a woman and b) I work in HR. The expectation of this combination is someone who is warm and fluffy. 
HR is still, even now, expected to be rainbows and unicorns, warm and fluffy, morning teas, well-being programs and advocating for policies where people get more but do less. Well, fluff alone doesn’t get the job done. I’ve never been that, and I never will, and I make no apology for it.

Tough business (HR) women like me agree there are 5 things we know to be true:

1. You are mentally strong

You live by a set of core values that guide your practice and your discipline. For me, my core belief is that businesses will only be successful when people perform at their best. To create an environment for people to perform at their best, you have to drive change and shape culture and this is not always comfortable for people but because you are mentally strong, you will never give up and you have the skills to withstand the criticism.
2. Your self-worth is not defined by who likes you
Businesses exist to make money. Even not for profit has to make money. To succeed you have to build constructive, mutually beneficial relationships but this doesn’t mean that you need people to like you to feel good about yourself. I do not go to work to make friends – for HR, I think that can be a conflict of interest. I go to work to deliver on the promises that I made when I signed my contract of employment. People with self worth like themselves, value their own achievements and don’t need external validation to be worthy. 

“Some of my toughtest critics are other women. Women can be shamelessly unsupportive of other women.”

3. You don’t give in 
Commercial HR practitioners make tough decisions – all. the. time. And these decisions must be for the good of all, not one person. Setting unsustainable precedent is irresponsible. It always has to be big picture and it can never be self-serving or to win favour. Therefore, you are never going to make everyone happy. You don’t care about being called “tough” or “scary” because it is not about you. You also know that the people who see you this way are usually the ones that are the problem so you don’t retreat, or give in. As Christine Holgate said; “I didn’t have to roll over, I had the chance to stand up“, and she did. Bravo! Read here.
4. Your critics want to be more like you
Being tough and strong takes courage, confidence and experience. Many people lack courage. When women are tough, they are courageous and most just want to be a bit more like you! Miranda Priestley taught us ‘hater’s gonna hate‘, but if you make a difference, it will be undeniable!
Tough business women
5. Your results speak for themselves
You know what you’ve done, the size of the mountains you have moved, the influence, the impact, and it is all you need to know, and those that paid you for that work are very grateful. 
Some of my toughest critics are other women. Women can be shamelessly unsupportive of other women.
The stark difference in my experience is how I am received and perceived by men versus women. I’ve sat on an Executive for the past 25 years of my career. In all that time, I’ve been the only woman. The “tough” and “unrelenting” reputation for my male bosses and peers has never been a problem – they are mostly not threatened – and in countless situations, they have relied on me to get the job done. In fact, I’ve been approached for jobs because the business needs an HR person “who is tough on performance and gets results“.
It’s time to applaud the tough and unrelenting business women, and as far as HR goes, well I’ve never seen a highly successful HR function drive change and deliver quantifiable results by serving up morning teas, being soft on performance and failing to drive expectations because of how they may be seen.  
To all the like-minded commercial HR practitioners out there, the tough and unrelenting business women, I applaud you.


Related Articles

Why you should be doing stay interviews.

Why you should be doing stay interviews.

We are noisy about the use of culture surveys - we think they rarely tell you what you really need to know and should be used sparingly - read here....


Follow Us

We welcome a discussion to see if we can meet your needs.

HR Business Partner acknowledges the Traditional Owners as custodians of the land on which we live, learn and work
and recognise their continued connection to land, waters and culture.  We pay our respects to elders past and present.

HR Business Partner
Uncapped Potential Leadership Development

Send an Email