Walking a Fine Line – The Assertive Woman’s Challenge

Walking a Fine Line – The Assertive Woman’s Challenge

While on vacation I had an interesting discussion with a friend about her daughter. I have a son and was curious to know how her daughter had developed the confidence to handle being on a trip with 6 boys. Her reply was simple – “I always tell her to advocate for herself.” The simple notion that she was tasked with speaking up for her own wants and needs, rather than acquiescing to the boys, or expecting her mother to be her champion made me smile. It was a lesson in commanding respect, in empowerment. She had already learned good manners at an early age, but as she got older, it was time to help her understand the difference between being assertive and being aggressive or rude. It’s a matter of strength with integrity.

Fighting to Get There

Considering that so few women are in positions of power in business – around 4% of S&P 500 companies have a woman at the helm – it begs the question “are we teaching our girls to be assertive enough, but if so, are they then punished for it?” And what about whether people judge their performance based on the same criteria used for men? Just ask Marissa Mayer – CEO of Yahoo. After being brought in several years ago to turn around the floundering company, she faced a firestorm of criticism that often had nothing to do with the results she managed to achieve. The cost of a dress she wore to a meeting being one example.

Getting it Right

We have heard complaints that women are referred to as something that rhymes with “witches” when they assert themselves. Our societal expectation remains that women be on the more demure side while men take charge and get the respect. Is it simply because they are women, or is it the encouragement to behave in a strong manner that misses the mark? Are they mistaking assertiveness with aggression and are they pushed to that brink by all the resistance faced in a “man’s world”? What we teach our daughters and what we encourage from our friends should distinguish between stating what you want and imposing your goals inappropriately on others. But it may also need to come with a warning – that even well-placed and earnestly directed assertiveness may be met with opposition. Beware: your self-expression can be easily misconstrued.

Reactions Count

I firmly believe that it’s the response to that opposition that could hold the key to success. How to respond to criticism and non-compliance is a tricky thing. For women, maintaining assertiveness while still commanding respect is no easy task. Often, regardless of the skill with which a job is done, others will resist a woman’s authority. It’s possible to not back down without ramping up the aggression. But honestly, women shouldn’t have to traverse a minefield to get the job done.

The Other Side

That’s why it’s as much my job as a boy’s mom to not only teach him to be kind and respectful of girls socially, but to recognize they are just as deserving of power, authority, and respect in all situations, including the workplace. I must set an example.

Is Change Possible?

It’s hard to change thousands of years of stereotyping and pigeonholing of women, and those who were raised in the “boys club” atmosphere are most unlikely to change. But can we raise a generation of young men who are not threatened by women in power? Can we teach young girls the art of assertiveness and how to respond appropriately if challenged? What do you think is the key and how would you tackle the issue?



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