The unfair and yet all too real labels of being “too assertive”, “bossy” or “aggressive” are something that women deal with on the daily at the workplace merely for having a point of view and standing by it. That is the work ecosystem we inhabit - where despite efforts to bridge the gender gap, there are certain traits that are just regarded to be masculine and simply “un-ladylike”. How much is too much when it comes to being assertive at work? Who draws the line, where and why? Could being assertive do more harm than good for women and their careers?
Women and men work in distinctively different workplaces. Even when two individuals work in the same department, in the same organization, maybe even the exact same role - with every other variable being exactly the same other than their gender, how these two employees are perceived by their colleagues and how they perceive their workplaces are often entirely different. It is a concerning and ubiquitous truth that even today, an assertive woman in the workplace risks being penalized or alienated simply for standing her ground.
A study published with Fortune states that in almost 75% of performance reviews women receive "negative personality criticism" or score less on “likeability” for behaviour that would not normally be considered negative were it exhibited by their male colleagues.
Behaviour is often, if not always, taken in the context of our gender.
Moreover, when women behave in ways that are incongruous with the “accepted” norms for a woman, by being assertive, decisive and resolute for example, they are often called out for being difficult and bossy. Why is it that the same character traits that, in a man, are regarded as ideal qualities for a leader, seem utterly unacceptable in a woman?
Being a strong woman in the workplace comes with its own set of challenges and requires careful navigation through multiple double standards. Women in leadership roles not only have to strive to be successful as a leader but also work to overcome the gender bias at work and be accepted as a leader first. That could possibly explain why many women leaders come are perceived as bullies because that is the persona they have had to create for themselves in order to survive an environment riddled with negative bias.
What’s more is that this negative bias is not something that is directed at women solely by men. A study by the Workplace Bullying Institute reported that women are bullied by other women about 80% of the time. Studies also point out that women who have female bosses are bullied and abused more often. While this is unsettling, it also makes sense - college freshmen who are actively ragged are more likely to rag and bully their juniors the next year, and children who are bullied and abused at home, often lash out and bully other, more submissive schoolmates. Keeping up the “bully persona” takes hard work and especially to some women who work in male-dominated fields, it may seem helpful to seem intimidating. What is disheartening is that women (at times even subconsciously) subscribe to this toxic masculinity to maintain a tougher leadership style. This can lead to the “queen bee” syndrome where women who have had to fight for their rightful place at the table, are ready to battle it out with their female colleagues and subordinates to keep it, is a difficult obstacle to overcome, being rooted in our collective psychological fabric.
But how does this tie into conversations around women breaking the glass ceiling and advancing into senior management? Do women then need to be assertive to shatter each of these barriers, to work harder, and to fight for their right to lead only to be criticised and penalised for being “too assertive”? The ludicrous irony here is difficult to ignore.
A substantial majority of women (be it in the corporate world or otherwise) would agree that they have, at some point, been told about the “benefits of being assertive and not aggressive”. But who defines the demarcation where assertiveness ends and aggression begins? Especially since the border seems rather fluid - changing in accordance with how threatened the person (usually a man) at the other end of this assertiveness feels. Women in the work ecosystem (and at home as well) are all too familiar with the strange dichotomy that characterises perception. This holds true especially in cases of transgression - while women are often called out for and have to apologise for “being” aggressive, men are alerted if they “come across “ as aggressive. In other words, women go through years of training in apologising for who they are.
The labels women at work need to navigate, although quite similar in the wider context, differ in terms of geo-political and socio-cultural relevance. While women are “allowed” a higher level of assertiveness in more individualistic countries in the West, collectivistic countries in Asia seem to be a lot more stringent. In the Asian context where being submissive and demure are considered to be positive traits in a woman, there is a stronger fight necessary to break the mould that is imposed on every girl growing up. There is often a big shift needed to accept that being strong-willed, determined and undaunted are feminine traits as well and that when women are brave enough to fight for their rights or simply be vocal about their ideas, the automatic response should not be a curious mix of condescending approval and triggered discomfort.
Beyond the glass ceiling
What’s unfortunate is that even when a woman’s assertiveness is not immediately opposed to, it is often regarded as something that gives her an “edge” and that makes her either a topic of discussion or an objectifiable irregularity. In both cases, the point of being assertive is lost. Besides concentrating on drafting employee value propositions and corporate value statements that have “diversity and inclusion” written in bold, organizations need to focus on going beyond the optics of having women in leadership, on token diversity inclusions, and on creating a culture that is organically inclusive where leaders can be assertive and authentic in their leadership despite their gender.
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