The Cohort: Does ‘badass’ belong in the workplace?

The Cohort is Poynter's bi-monthly newsletter about women kicking ass in digital media.

During the 2015 Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, we put together a short video asking participants the best and worst words used to describe women in leadership. Of the 12 women who shared positive descriptors, two said “badass” and one decided on “kick-ass.”

Those words came up again at Poynter a few months ago, when I invited my colleagues to participate in a Cohort feedback session. A couple of coworkers questioned whether this newsletter’s tagline — women kicking ass in digital media — was necessary. One colleague shared her thoughts via email: “I wince at the language, but that's probably because I'm not in the (core) demographic. Why do we say ‘badass’? Could that be turning off anyone other than me?” Another shared his thoughts in person; to him, the language seems unnecessarily harsh.

I didn’t debate the tagline when I launched this newsletter. It described The Cohort’s goal, and, to me, the language seemed appropriate for the audience I hoped to reach. But now, months later, I’m left wondering why “kick-ass” and “badass” bother some people.

There’s the obvious: They aren’t professional. There’s also a negative connotation with both phrases. As one colleague put it, “kicking ass” doesn’t seem like the kind of action we should encourage in leaders (though that might be taking things too literally).

I also suspect the words might be alienating. If other people are using language you’re not used to, especially in conventional professional settings, then it’s hard not to feel like you’re missing something. But that’s not a valid reason to censor ourselves.

There’s empowerment in discomfort. Women often base their actions on what will please others, whether by smiling at rude catcallers, staying quiet when interrupted, or laughing off inappropriate comments. As someone who worries about being too easy of a pushover in the office, too much of a sweet and quiet person, the fact that my newsletter tagline gave my colleagues pause made me strangely proud. We shouldn’t always have to play nice.

Of course, feedback is only helpful if you take it into consideration. I did appreciate my coworkers’ comments, and they helped me realize that I was in a bubble. I use “kick-ass” and “badass” often, as do many friends in real life and online, and I never really considered that they might be off-putting. And while I won’t be changing my tagline, I will try to use a wider variety of words and phrases to describe the impressive women I know. Relying too heavily on “young” trendy words can undermine the ultimate goal of earning respect.

At the suggestion of my language-loving colleague Roy Peter Clark, I looked up the definitions of both words. Merriam-Webster offers two definitions for badass: “ready to cause or get into trouble,” and “of formidable strength or skill.” Kick-ass is defined as “strikingly or overwhelmingly tough, aggressive, powerful, or effective.” Both words are traditionally masculine, but — at least in my bubble — they’re increasingly associated with women.

Let’s consider the definition of “kick-ass.” If women were overwhelmingly tough and aggressive in the workplace, we’d be seen as pushy bitches, not as skillful leaders. Instead, we play to our formidable feminine strengths. Women are powerful and effective by being empathetic, warm and collaborative. We’re not only reclaiming these words, but redefining them too. We’re kicking ass on our own terms.

Over the past few years, “badass” and “kick-ass” have been co-opted by a legion of feminist women who have a louder voice online, a (slow but steady) increasing presence in leadership positions, and a growing network of other empowered women. That’s badass in its own right. We shouldn’t shy away from those words, even if it makes people in power uncomfortable. Discomfort is a sign of progress.


Things worth reading
Speaking of badasses, here are 17 you should know. This is a lovely idea: Let’s spend the first 100 days of the 45th presidency celebrating 100 awesome women. This NPR reporter’s take on what it was like to be a Muslim reporting on the campaign trail is a powerful account — and important for any manager to read and consider what reporters might experience. More than two dozen CEOs have signed a pledge to accelerate women climbing the corporate ladder. Here’s to progress! And one of my favorite end-of-year routines is blocking off some quiet time to read and reflect on NeimanLab’s predictions for journalism. This year’s roundup includes several Leadership Academy alums, including Megan H. Chan, Mandy Velez, Katie Zhu, Dhiya Kuriakose and Rachel Schallom.

About last week
We hosted our first Leadership Academy for Diversity in Digital Media at Poynter last week and it was incredible — there was so much energy, so many great ideas, and so many wonderful journalists in the room.

I walked away wishing I worked with every single person in the academy. If you’re looking for talented women of color to follow and learn from, this group is a good place to start.

(The men in the room were fantastic, too! Here’s a list of everyone who was part of the academy.)

Enjoy this newsletter? Tell your friends and coworkers.

The Cohort is part of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. Props to Kristen Hare, who kicks all the ass, for her newsletter edits and insight.

  • Profile picture for user katiehawk

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar

    Katie Hawkins-Gaar is the organizer of Poynter’s Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. She was previously Poynter’s digital innovation faculty member, and taught journalists how to make the most of social media, understand audience engagement, rethink workflows and foster creativity.


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