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 – both are critical.

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 have this commercial mindset and that is what businesses need from HR – it will make you worth every cent“. So I did and I do.

What does it mean to be ‘tough’ or ‘unrelenting’?

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 difficulty.

The definition of unrelenting is: not yielding in strength; severity; or determination.

Pretty good attributes in my opinion.

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

So why is my “tough and unrelenting” reputation a bad thing for some people?

That’s easy;  a) I’m a woman, and b) I work in HR. The expectation of this combination is someone who is warm, fluffy, nice.

HR is still, even now, expected to be rainbows and unicorns, for the people, 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.  There are 5 things tough business women know to be true.

5 things tough business women 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, a 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 because it’s not about you, it’s about the big picture.

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 for 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, what you have sacrificed for your core values and ethics, 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. Those I’ve had the privilege to work with are undeniable and get more shit done than anyone you will ever meet. Let’s raise them up, not tear them down.

To all the like-minded, tough and unrelenting business women out there, we applaud you!

As practitioners with years of in-house Corporate experience, we know that becoming strategic, influential and valuable is a journey supported by mentoring. This is why we offer people strategy workshops and HR masterclasses facilitated by Marnie Brokenshire (30+ years corporate HR, 15 at C-Suite), and Nicole Mathers (10+ years corporate HR, 5 at senior management).  Reach out to see how we can support you.

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