Take Off Your Blinders – I’m Assertive, Not Aggressive

Blog post written by The Wisest Women Co-Founder, Dr. Amber Miller

When I first heard the phrase, “double blind”, I thought it was referring to a component of a poker or casino game. The meaning is not nearly as fun as this gambling metaphor. Then I thought of  a double-blind study, where neither the experimenter nor participant knows who is receiving a specific treatment. While a very important process, I am introducing a different type of double blind scenario. Gender stereotypes create a no-win situation for women in the workplace, and we can combat this scenario by embracing assertiveness, especially assertive communication. The preoccupation with how men and women should behave makes us blind; however, we should use assertive communication to work on ourselves and society to overcome it.

The double blind is based on stereotypical beliefs that men naturally take charge (are decisive and assertive), while women naturally fill the caretaker role (are encouraging and nurturing). These stereotypes create an uphill battle for women as they take on leadership roles. I equate this to the Goldilocks scenario: the porridge is too hot, too cold, or just right. However, according to Catalyst, in the double blind scenario there is no “just right”.1 When women behave in accordance to their gender stereotype, they are considered to be nice, but not competent. When they act more like their male counterparts, they are assessed as competent, but unliked. Women are rarely found to be competent and liked. Additionally, women are held to a higher standard and forced to prove they can reach that standard over and over again.1 A publication by professors at Stanford GSB found that women who blend these two extremes for different situations are more successful and get promoted more often than other men and women. Knowing which situations need more direct approaches vs which situations need a softer touch can push women ahead of every other personality type.2 

These cited articles were published a decade or two ago, when women were immensely concerned with whether they would be labeled as pushy, bossy, and at worst a bitch, simply for behaving similar to their male counterparts. While bossy and bitchy may be outdated, they have been replaced by adjectives such as intimidating, aggressive, and direct, which still connote the same negative perception. This double standard is incredibly confusing. Many of us are told that in order to “get ahead” we need to act more like men, but then we get penalized for acting like men. 

The counter side is that we also don’t want to be described as too emotional or sensitive. We are trained to make sure that the inflection of our voice doesn’t make everything sound like a question because this makes you appear less knowledgeable. We get told to not show our emotions or make a fuss because this makes you appear less competent. So much of our competency and abilities are measured by unconscious biases relating to gender stereotypes. 

How then do we move past these biases to be viewed as competent, collegial leaders in the workplace? My belief is that it all boils down to how we communicate with others. In a recent WISEcast episode, Girl Interrupted, Richa Bansal, Founder and CEO of PinkCareers, shared with us the art of assertive communication. She informed us that there are four basic communication styles: aggressive, passive aggressive, passive, and assertive. There are two aspects to each communication style: 1. How we express ourselves and what we want. 2. How we treat the other people involved. 

Both aggressive and assertive communication styles rely on the ability to explicitly express yourself to the other party involved. These are unlike passive and passive aggressive communication styles when you do not express yourself at all or you indirectly express your opinions, wants, and desires. This is based solely on how effectively we share our voices and how clear we are about our thoughts and wants. This may seem straightforward, but there are a few different layers to this. First, we have to know what our thoughts and wants are. This means we have to be aware of our values and needs. We have to know where our compass is pointing and then follow it. Secondly, we need to be aware of how we communicate our thoughts and wants. Are we making demands? Are we using rude language? I’m sure you are familiar with the saying: “It’s not about what you say, it’s about how you say it..” We are more likely to be heard, and heard correctly, when we are being respectful and communicating in an appropriate manner.

The second component of communication is how we treat the people involved. For me, this is the key differentiating factor between all of the communication styles. The goal of assertive communication is a win-win outcome. You are direct with what you need, but you are also aware and considerate of the needs of others involved. This is different from all the other styles, where there is at least one loser.  As we move towards breaking down gender biases, we should strive for inclusion and win-win situations.

Many gender biases and stereotypes are rooted in our unconsciousness. To move past these, we have to be aware of their presence and work to dismantle them. We need to embrace assertiveness, and be direct with the goal of creating win-win situations. We need to worry less about the traditional roles of men and women and focus on the skills that make great leaders and colleagues. If we all view each other as ambitious, assertive, and able, irrespective of gender, we will all be getting A’s rather than describing women as B’s. 

References:

  1. https://www.catalyst.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/The_Double_Bind_Dilemma_for_Women_in_Leadership_Damned_if_You_Do_Doomed_if_You_Dont.pd 
  2. https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/insights/researchers-how-women-can-succeed-workplace 

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