What is Assertiveness, for Women?

(Friday Post Category: Yes, You Can: Women in Academia)

I get so frustrated when I see the female students and colleagues I work with sabotage themselves and undermine their own authority and effectiveness because of an inability to be assertive. What is assertiveness, you ask? The definition of assertiveness for women in academia includes the confidence to state opinions clearly and firmly, to back them up in the face of disagreement, to make strong and steady eye contact, to use emphatic hand gestures, to display calm and confident body language while speaking and listening.

Women I work with as students AND as colleagues routinely display the opposite of assertiveness–instead of confidence, they express insecurity, instead of calm, they display anxiety, instead of eye contact they look to the side, instead of emphatic hand gestures they play with their hair and fiddle with their clothes, instead of calm and confident body language, they droop their shoulders, slouch in their chairs, tie themselves into cross-legged, cross-armed knots until they occupy half the space to which they’re entitled.

The small woman

 Why does this happen? Women are trained from birth to self-effacement and deference. Women defer to men, in professional settings, across the board. I would have believed that in 21st century America this was no longer the case… until I started observing the speaking patterns and body language of the young women in the university setting, and beyond that, my tenured colleagues in my departments.

If you are a woman and want to test this supposition, I offer this assertiveness training exercise. The next time you are in conversation with a man, in a professional setting, and both of you start speaking at the identical moment, will yourself to NOT give in, to keep speaking, until he stops, and your voice prevails.

I’d wager money you can’t do it. If you can, you’re going to be surprised at the effort of will it takes. At how unnatural it feels. At how aggressive it seems.

The diminished woman

Because women defer to men in professional settings the vast majority of the time. They default to smiling and nodding. They default to agreeing. They default to ego-soothing (“just following up on what YOU said….”). They default to cooing little supportive noises (“mm hmmm, mm hmmm”). They default to that odd upward lilt, an epidemic among younger Americans, that transforms every statement into an insecure sounding question that trails off into uncertain silence. They default to the big eyed, tilted head listening pose that you might recognize from your puppy. They default to silence in the place of direct confrontation.   (Doubt my word on this? Read this amazing post on women in the workplace by body language expert Carol Kinsey Goman, recently published on the Washington Post website.)

Women don’t exhibit these behaviors because they’re incompetent or stupid. On the contrary, these are the behaviors that little girls learn in their families and that work for them in countless environments growing up. And these behaviors transmogrify in the domestic sphere as women grow older. Women don’t necessarily defer to their husbands and domestic partners in the same way.

But in the professional world, where influence and power derive from individual authority, expertise, and confidence…. women’s learned domestic behaviors of agreement, soothing, indirection, and non-confrontation fail them badly.

The insecure woman

Here are the top five ways that women undermine their own authority:

1)  Ending their declarative sentences and statements on a verbal upswing or “lilt” that communicates self-doubt and deference.

2) Waiting their turn to interject contributions instead of diving in assertively.

3) Leading with, and defaulting to, what they “don’t know” and “can’t do” and what “won’t work.”

4) Having a weak handshake and deferential body language, including smiling too much, laughing too often, trailing off, taking up too little space, and defaulting to questions rather than statements.

5) Expressing themselves in a disorganized  manner that is so filled with caveats and apologies, that it muddies their main point and obscures the goal that they set out to accomplish.

The end result of years of such repetitions of these patterns is that women students and faculty accrue less status and fewer rewards at each stage in their career within the academic institution.

For many years I’ve led a workshop, Yes You Can: Women and Success in Academia. We review the patterns of speech and body language I talk about here. And then in the second half, we do role playing. My attendees dread the role playing. But about 3 minutes into it, they start to grasp just how deeply embedded are the unconscious speech and body practices that have consistently undermined their verbal assertiveness, expressions of authority and entitlement, and physical command of space. By the time they have each struggled painfully to get through the following three sentences, with no prevarication, excuses, second-guessing, or caveats, “I WILL APPLY TO GRADUATE SCHOOL IN XXX. I WILL SPECIALIZE IN XX. I PLAN TO BECOME A PROFESSIONAL XXX,” they grasp just how deeply and profoundly they have been denying their own voices.

We follow that up with many other professional scenarios, including disagreeing while maintaining steady eye contact and a steady voice, and the art of the firm handshake. By the end, attendees are always a combination of dazed, dismayed, inspired, outraged, shocked, amused, and totally fired up to test their new skills out on the first guy they meet. They report back incredible results.

If you’re a woman who struggles to make herself heard, you’re not alone. If you write to me, Karen, at gettenure@gmail.com, I will send you a Top Ten Tip sheet from my Yes You Can Workshop. Get in touch. We should talk.

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What is Assertiveness, for Women? — 29 Comments

  1. I would like to receive the Top Ten Tip Sheet from your Yes You Can workshop. My situation is more family-related as in a daughter-in-law whose behavior/actions are disrespectful toward me but I don’t say anything until much later when I’ve had a chance to review the situation. I need to stand up for myself and make my feelings/opinions known.

  2. Dear Karen,

    I read your article with great interest. After receiving my master’s I felt confident and successful in my teaching field until I stepped out of my carreer for10 years to raise my children. I’ve been back teaching full-time for 10 years and am frustrated at my difficulty assuming my place as a competent, affective teacher. I recognize that my inability to assert my rights, knowledge and desires is wide spread and affects the relationships with my children and spouse. I am conscious of my weakness and want desperately to tackle this problem head on and regain my confidence and self-esteem. I am very interested in learning more about your 10 Tips.

  3. Dear Karen,
    I read this and I thought – yes, this is how it usually is in my professional career. Smiling too much, nodding, looking away, waiting my turn, being a good listener. It seems polite and accommodating to do this. I can usually make myself heard though when I have something I want to say. When things don’t go the way I like I sometimes find it easier to be assertive in follow-up emails after I’ve gone away and thought about things. Surreptitiously I make my views and the way I’d like things done known and I find logic and reason and clear writing are my powerful ally in this. It usually gets results. But I know it’s the men in suits that have the power and to them I’m of little consequence. Recently I was stunned when my male colleague was invited to give a talk to my ex-workplace about research for which I was clearly lead researcher and lead author. He (a senior colleague) kindly agreed for me to give the presentation when I expressed surprise that they hadn’t asked me. At the event I invited him to join me to help with question time. Men in the audience asked my male colleague questions. It was mainly the women who directed their questions at me. And it was my male colleague who was the one thanked for the presentation!!!(by the male suit in charge). After all those weeks of preparation and polished performance. I could scarcely believe it. I would love to have your top ten tips. Caroline

  4. Please send me the top ten tips! I am a female business owner in a predominently male setting. I am also the widowed mother of three sons.

  5. Assertiveness, controlling, pushy or is it confident. Always a fine line for women. Please forward me a copy of your top ten tips. Thank you.

  6. Pingback: Correcting for the Selection Function: Gender | Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

  7. I see some of this type behavior among men as well…does birth order play any role in this behavior or is it all gender?

  8. Wow. I especially notice the guy/girl speaking at the same time scenario at work. It’s very frustrating when I feel like I have to always let the guy talk even if he interrupts- and it’s obvious that he feels he has more authority. Some men are worse at this than others. In the part of the article where you said to challenge yourself by continuing to talk…. I could barely imagine that *shudders*

  9. Please send me your top ten list. I am a nurse, my immediate boss is a man, my partner is a man as is half of the rest of the staff here. It is truly the “good old boys club” here. Because I reported my partner for bullying, I was made out to be the bad guy. The more I spoke up and was truthful of the unfairness and dynamics, the more I was targeted. I even received a serious diciplinary action for a minor offense. I really want to know how to communicate more effectively. Thanks for your article.

  10. Hi Karen,
    I’m such a fan of your blog and book, and have turned to both on countless occasions in my 2 years (and counting) spent working on my PhD. This article caught my eye while I was looking for something along the lines of being a woman in academia/handling bullying. I don’t say this to discount the points you made (because everything you’ve said is totally valid)…it’s just that I happen to be one of those odd women who don’t defer to men: I don’t hesitate to disagree or be direct; if I have the floor, I don’t let others take it from me mid-sentence, etc.
    But it’s this assertiveness that has landed me in hot water. In short, I called out my advisor when he treated me in an inappropriate/unprofessional manner. I did it politely, but bluntly. That was 4 months ago. Since that incident, he’s been giving me the silent treatment, grown increasingly hostile towards me every time I tried to confront the situation and ask him to just talk to me about it – to the point that he became so verbally abusive/aggressive towards me that I’m fairly certain I’m going to remove him from my committee and file a complaint against him. I now have full blown panic attacks if I so much as run into him.
    I guess my point is, going against the grain can come at a price, unfortunately. It feels terribly unfair to be told by others that he probably wouldn’t be treating me this way if I had just kept my mouth shut, learn to do as I’m told, or just be happy/smiley/giggly like …but I suppose they’re all right.

    • Ace, I’m so sorry to hear this story. Women have learned to behave the way they do because fragile male egos cannot tolerate challenges. But that has to change! I’m proud of you for standing up to this man, and I’m sure that in the long run you will be better off (and don’t forget the women around you whom you are inspiring!)

  11. Please send me your top 10 list. Your article chimes so clearly thaat I feel they could be a great help. Thank you.

  12. Pingback: October Monthly Discussion: Assertiveness. – 500 Women Scientists – Santa Barbara pod

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