Assertiveness and Related Definitions:
Assertive: Showing confidence and standing up for one’s personal rights in a direct and honest way. Synonyms include self-confident, positive, self-assured, firm, and determined.
Passive: Accepting situations and the actions of others as they are, without resistance.
Aggressive: Pursuing one’s aims and goals forcefully; being willing to attack or confront to achieve them. Sometimes mistaken for competence.
Aggressive behavior is often interpreted differently in men than women. In men, aggressive behavior may be considered decisive, forceful, energetic, ambitious, and leader-like. In women, the same behavior may be viewed as hostile, antagonistic, or belligerent (Maloney & Moore, 2019). Even assertive behavior in women is misunderstood to be aggressive. Some of the bias is unconscious, so it can be difficult to change. One solution is to fine-tune skills that fall within the range of assertive rather than aggressive.
Turning Up Your Assertiveness:
Aside from conscious and unconscious bias that results in women often not being taken as seriously in business, many women have a relatively more passive communication style than average, which may be another contributing factor to their ideas being dismissed (Maloney & Moore, 2019). Changing to a more assertive style may help women get their point across. The following tips for how to increase assertiveness in communications were published in a medical journal (Maloney, 2019):
- Listen actively, which means responding to the ideas of others, and building on them with some ideas of your own, if possible.
- Find a way to express your views during the meeting, as often as men. If you don’t show who you are and what you have to offer, you are a blank slate upon which it is easier for others to project unconsious bias.
- If you find it difficult breaking into the conversation, try starting with, “I have a comment on this topic.”
- Think about word choice. Avoid words that sound like you doubt yourself or that soften your impact. For example, avoid, “perhaps”, “I’m not sure, but,” and “sort of.” Avoid apologizing for or diminishing your contribution (“I’m sorry to bother you, but…” or “This may sound crazy, but…”)
- Be aware of your body language, voice, and word choice:
- Make eye contact without staring and make subtle gestures to make it clear you are listening, such as a slight nod.
- When you are the one speaking, make eye contact with everyone in the room, and think about making sure the person farthest from you can hear you clearly.
- Avoid raising your voice at the end of sentence as if it is a question.
- Sit or stand straight using a relaxed posture.
- Talk to people as if you assume they are not biased and are reasonable, rather than making yourself small to avoid being a target.
That said, be aware that some people may define assertiveness differently for a woman than a man. The same behavior that might be viewed as assertive in a man, is often called aggressive in a woman (Maloney & Moore, 2019).
Booth B. A Leadership Imperative: Getting More C-Level Women In Biotech. LifeSciVC. Published September 28, 2015. Accessed August 16, 2021.
Maloney ME, Moore P. From aggressive to assertive,. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2019;6(1):46-49. doi:10.1016/j.ijwd.2019.09.006