Assertiveness – A Double Edged Sword

Assertiveness – A Double Edged Sword February 23, 2022

Katy Mims was my friend and mentor—and next-door neighbor—for over 20 years. Katy was a fifth-generation Floridian who started out as a journalist, worked her way up to becoming a successful entrepreneur, and lived to the age of 100. I often walked over to Katy’s to seek her guidance when I encountered challenges in my career, or sometimes just to have a glass of wine at the end of a long day. 

One time, I sought her counsel for a difficult situation at work. No one in a client meeting seemed to hear my suggestion, but 15 minutes later when one of the men in the room said the same thing everyone responded enthusiastically. I had no idea how to manage this frustrating and awkward situation. 

Katy took off her glasses, looked me in the eye and said, “Take heart—your suggestion was so good that someone took it forward. Next time, chime in and remind everyone that they heard the same thing before.” 

Katy affirmed my feelings. Her advice helped me wake up and see that I could respond differently and more directly with others instead of stewing over not feeling heard by my co-workers. She taught me to become more assertive and resilient— qualities that she, a true “steel magnolia,” had in abundance. Katy called this sort of determination “gumption.”

We need gumption. Almost every time I facilitate one of our Key Women’s Leadership Forums, I hear at least one story from a woman who—like me in the story I told about Katy—let others talk over her without asserting herself. Maybe she didn’t claim credit for her great idea. Or she didn’t ask for the raise, high-profile assignment, or board exposure she wanted. Or she didn’t voice her concerns about a risky decision her team was making because she feared being branded as disagreeable. 

It amazes me how many bright, outwardly successful women don’t ask for what they want or need because they fear the consequences or are waiting to be noticed instead of speaking up. When we don’t stick up for ourselves, there’s rarely anyone else to do so—and our self-esteem and our careers suffer as a result.  

Take heart—your suggestion was so good that someone took it forward. Next time, chime in and remind everyone that they heard the same thing before.

– Katie Mims

What we know 

Staying silent and waiting for our great contributions to be noticed isn’t working. The solution isn’t as simple as speaking up and copying the assertive men around us; gender bias exists. The traits associated with strong leadership such as decisiveness, assertiveness and taking charge too often align with our view of men. These same traits in women can become misaligned if stereotyped expectations are to be nice, friendly, socially skilled, and sensitive. Culturally, we tend to view women differently from the way we view men; assertive women sometimes seem aggressive or “bossy” where the very same behavior in a man would be seen as direct. Directness is a positive leadership trait, aggressiveness is not. Women sometimes hold back because they rightly fear being penalized for speaking up too bluntly. 

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg discusses a study done at Columbia University to prove that point about the mismatch in qualities between leadership and being a woman. In the “Heidi/Howard” study, Columbia Business School professors asked students to read a case based on Heidi Roizen, a successful real-life entrepreneur. All the MBA students read the case study about Roizen’s career, but half were given a version of the case in which Heidi’s name had been changed to Howard. 

The professors then polled the students about their impressions of Heidi/Howard. The students rated the entrepreneur as competent in both cases. Both versions showed an entrepreneur with significant accomplishments. However, the students found Howard to be a more appealing colleague than Heidi. They saw Howard as someone you would want to work for or with, while Heidi was viewed by some as selfish and “not the type of person you’d want to hire or work for.” Again, the only difference in the case studies was changing the sex of the first name. 

Two researchers, Melissa Williams of the Wall Street Journal and Larissa Tiedens of Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, were curious whether or not the same assertive behavior would be seen differently coming from a woman versus a man. They synthesized 71 studies that evaluated people’s responses to men and women behaving assertively. The pair found women were disparaged more than men for the same assertive behaviors. Interestingly, women were criticized especially often for direct verbal forms of assertiveness, such as negotiating for a higher salary. The same behavior displayed by men didn’t elicit a negative response. The researchers’ conclusion is that female leaders get penalized for being “too assertive.”

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day on March 8 is Break the Bias. Being aware of gender bias is the first step.  

To learn more about assertiveness and other tips for women leaders, order my book, Seizing Success: A Woman’s Guide to Transformational Leadership

Seizing Success: A Woman’s Guide to Transformational Leadership

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