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Aggressive or Assertive? Gender Bias in The Workplace

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”. Stop consenting. Stop colluding. Stop being that nice little girl you were taught to be in childhood!” ― Lois P. Frankel, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Careers

There is so much right and so much wrong with this quote and this book. On one side of the spectrum, the traits and characteristics that we typically associate with effective leadership favour stereotypically masculine attributes like assertiveness, ambition, and competition and simultaneously discount stereotypically female traits like collaboration and sensitivity. Because male stereotypes align with leadership stereotypes, a man is therefore more likely than a woman to be seen as a potential business leader.

Our concepts of what it means to be ‘female’ do not fit our ideas of what it means to be a ‘leader’. This disconnect, often manifesting as an unconscious preference for male leaders contributes to the glass ceiling facing women in their careers.

But, should we as women really have to behave more like men if we want to progress in our careers or is it important to talk more about this unconscious bias?

A Point of View…

I have been mentoring a fantastic young woman for a while now, who wanted to get a handle on her career trajectory in a workplace she felt somewhat unheard and overlooked.

She pulled together a list of factual examples and reasoning as to why she should be considered for a promotion and presented them to her boss in a professional manner. His response was that her approach was aggressive and her request was dismissed.

I was disappointed for her (and women everywhere). Mostly, because I know how hard she’d worked and that had a male counterpart been sitting in her position, the word aggressive wouldn’t have entered anyone’s mind. Instead, it would have been assertive, ambitious or determined. He would have been celebrated for these traits.

In my career this is something I have dealt with in spades. (Prepare for some bad language here, but what’s the point of dressing it up?) As a buyer, I was called a bitch, a ball-breaker, a punish. I was very aware of my reputation in the industry as an aggressive woman and that men would often roll their eyes when I voiced my point of view.

Studies show that when women exhibit stereotypically masculine traits commonly associated with leadership-like assertiveness, they are less-liked when compared with men exhibiting the same traits. After a while, my response as a young ambitious woman was to own this persona rather than fight against it, but should I have had to? Fact is, I was a great negotiator. I knew my stuff and I was assertive enough to get what was best for my clients. Had I have been born a man, would I have been a ball-breaker or a respected negotiator? Would I have been a bitch or simply good at my job?

It’s a double edged sword. Leadership theory prescribes that for a woman to emerge as a leader, she must display the traits commonly associated with effective leadership, including assertiveness. However, when women behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences that men don’t typically experience, such as being labelled aggressive.

The Double Standard in the Workplace

I’m not alone and I am sure many of you reading this are nodding along frantically. An article in the Harvard Business Review looked at 200 performance reviews within one company. The results tallied the number of references to being “too aggressive” in the reviews and get this, 76% of the instances were attributed to women, while only 24% of men were identified as having such a communication style.

This backlash puts women in a difficult position. To emerge as a leader, women must adopt traits consistent with leadership stereotypes, i.e. act more stereotypically masculine. But, when women do act more assertively, they breach feminine stereotypes and suffer a likeability penalty that, in turn, limits their professional success. So not only do women need to work harder to be assessed at the same level of competence as men, they also need to work differently—treading a fine line between masculinity and femininity. Asking for a promotion, offering opinions, challenging the status quo or negotiating for a salary increase, may help a male employee get ahead, but a female employee could easily end up labelled as “aggressive” or worse for the same behaviour.

So What is The Answer?

I don’t think there is an easy answer to this one, but one thing I believe is a theme is the unconscious bias and stereotypes involved. The book where I got the original quote, (here) has some interesting and useful information, accurately describing how we are conditioned as children to behave in a certain way. So in many ways this isn’t a purposeful attack or something consciously done. Therefore, I believe it all starts with a conversation.

We should strive for cultural change rather than put a band-aid on the issue, however, I did read some strategies for managing the problem and here was one that I found interesting:

Women can reduce the assertiveness backlash by 27% by framing assertive statements with a “behaviour phrase,” a “value phrase,” or an “inoculation phrase’. Examples include:

  1. “I’m going to express my opinion very directly; I’ll be as specific as possible.” (behavior phrase)

  2. “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” (value phrase)

  3. “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.” (inoculation phrase)

Mainly, don’t take anything to heart. Remember this: When you apply an assertive approach, you’re reflecting equality of respect. In other words, you not only respect the other viewpoint or behaviour, but you respect your own. With aggressiveness, you respect your own, but not others.

So I challenge you, next time or if you are ever labelled aggressive unfairly, to ask how and for it to be unpacked. Change has to begin with a conversation.


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