What is a head girl?

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Last week, I was talking to a colleague about a mutual acquaintance. “She’s lovely – a bit ‘head girl’, but very nice.” I asked what he meant by “a bit head girl”. “Very efficient, very enthusiastic. She uses lots of exclamation points”. 

Later, I wondered how often people had said that about me. I can stand in court and address judges of the highest calibre without notes in my hand or a tremor in my voice. I can break down the most complex legal authority into terms that make easy reading for my lay client. Yet, like many professional women, I often cannot write a work email and then simply press send.  

I write it. Then I read it back. I check how many exclamation points I’ve used. I contrast with how many full stops. I double check that I don’t sound too informal; too silly. Then I check that my sentences aren’t too short; too demanding. I check how many times I’ve used the word “just”. How many times I’ve apologised. 

“Just wondering where you’re up to with the below – I know you said you’d have it ready by Friday and wanted to check I hadn’t missed anything!”. 


“You were supposed to have done this by Friday. You appear not to have done it, or, if you have, not to have told me. But if I chase you without exclamation points, I’m humourless. If I point out that you were supposed to have done it by Friday and it’s now Wednesday, I’m a ball-buster. Instead, please find herein a self-deprecating joke about how I’ve probably missed something (if I paint myself as the unprofessional one, hopefully you won’t feel angry about my pointing out your lack of professionalism). Hopefully we can still get this job done by the deadline and I won’t be penalised for being unlikeable, bossy, and difficult to work with”. 

A 2006 study confirmed that not only do women use exclamation points in emails significantly more than men, but they do so specifically in order to seem more friendly. But when we pepper our emails with unnecessary punctuation, do we professionally undermine ourselves? A 2021 article in Glamour magazine, “Why women should be writing emails like their male colleagues (that means getting rid of exclamation marks and kisses)” cited a career coach who opined, “women tend to be more apologetic, saying sorry for requesting things that are perfectly reasonable to be asking. This could be a reflection of lower confidence, or a representation of women feeling less sure of their professional position and authority”. 

But, as the Harvard Business Review points out, confidence can be a double-bind for women at work. In 2022, the HBR interviewed 30 male and 36 female senior leaders working as directors, partners and executives in the UK, asking each to describe key moments in their career progression. 33 out of the 36 women interviewed raised confidence, or its lack, as a key factor hampering their own or other women’s career progression.  

The men did not mention confidence as a factor in their own careers at all.  

Confidence itself was raised by only six of the 30 men interviewed, and then it was in the context of women lacking it. 

One male leader said “I find our women… lack self-confidence because they undersell themselves and point out their own weaknesses rather than promoting their strengths.” However, another stated “There was a woman in my team who tried to be like an alpha male. She was clearly acting a role.” The study’s conclusion was that, whether through perceived lack of confidence or perceived over-confidence, the notion of confidence itself is “weaponised” against women at work. 

The double standard in email tone specifically was explored by Amelia Tait in a 2017 article in the New Statesman. She spoke to women who received negative feedback because their tone in work emails was considered too cold, or too aggressive; they used too few exclamation points, and apologised too little for the professional requests they were making. One interviewee recounted being accidentally cc’d in an email from a male colleague in which he had called her earlier email, written in haste, “snide”. “I’m pretty sure of two things. First, if I’d couched it with lots of ‘so sorry to bother you’s and ‘I may be wrong!’s, he wouldn’t have been so angry and defensive that I had questioned him. Second, if a male collague had sent exactly what I sent, he would have had a lot more respect for it”. 

The double bind for women at work is a common one: too chirpy, and we come across as lightweight; too to-the-point, and we’re sullen: too confident, and we’re full of ourselves; not confident enough, and we only have ourselves to blame for our lighter paychecks. So what can women do to find the balance? How can women come across as professional but friendly; serious but not aggressive? 

As is so often the case in the narrative around equality, that question focusses on the wrong subject. A better, fairer and more useful question would be: how can men (and women) in the workplace better ensure an environment where a woman’s communication is judged on its message, not its punctuation? As with all problems, the first step to solving it is recognising its existence, so training is always a good place to start. Perhaps a realistic outcome to hope for would be if the person who double checked the email for tone – perceived and actual – was not just the sender, but the recipient. 

Author Harriet Johnson