Assertive or aggressive?

The fine line between being viewed as confident and abrasive


Camille Khodadad

Camille Khodadad is a partner at Hall Prangle and Schoonveld. The head of the employment law group and member of the commercial litigation group, she is a frequent speaker on current trends in employment law and issues pertaining to women in the workplace.

August 2015

A lawyer friend of mine recently told me about a meeting where she gave a presentation.

As she recounted the meeting, she made a comment that went something like this: “I had to walk a very fine line between being viewed as confident and being viewed as aggressive. As women, being labeled as aggressive is the kiss of death.”

Without my friend needing to say more, I knew too well what she was talking about.

In the workplace, women who are assertive, outspoken and confident can be labeled as aggressive, abrasive and yes even a “B.” Beyond the names, they are criticized for those behaviors.

Men who display those same qualities are often labeled as achievers, leaders and go-getters. In addition, they are praised for the same behaviors.

In an effort to avoid the criticism, women sometimes avoid exhibiting behaviors that may brand them with such negative labels.

This may manifest itself in the form of not speaking up in a meeting, refusing to disagree with a colleague or not taking credit for accomplishments.

It is important to point out that these labels can come from both men and women. In fact, as much as I hate to admit it, I am sure that I have been guilty of using them too.

Why is it negative for women to come off as assertive or outspoken? Why is it a positive thing for men to possess those same traits? And what can all of us do to make sure there is balance on this issue?

Some of the answers may lie with the way that men and women are socialized and how both genders have internalized that socialization.

Females typically are raised to be “good,” “nice” and “pleasing” and are praised for those behaviors. They often learn that they will not be liked if they are bossy, aggressive or a “know-it-all.”

Males, on the other hand, are often raised to be competitive, outspoken and assertive and are praised for those behaviors.

There seems to be less emphasis placed on males on the need to be liked.

It is no wonder that when we (men and women) enter the workforce, we continue to model the behaviors that society has praised us for so long and are confused when the other gender (and even our gender) acts in a way that is not viewed as being consistent with behavior for that gender.

When one gender acts inconsistently with the stereotype for their gender, they experience what is known as the “backlash effect.”

That gender is essentially punished or criticized for exhibiting the non-conforming gender traits.

This backlash can manifest itself in various ways — from comments on a performance review regarding a woman’s difficulty getting along with others to not getting choice assignments because of the perception that a woman is not a team player.

While it is difficult to change years of socialization and internalization overnight, there are things that both men and women can do to change this.

First, we have to recognize that the problem exists. Listen when words like “aggressive,” “abrasive” or “forceful” are used to describe a woman.

Are these traits spoken of in a positive or negative light?

Pay attention when a woman disagrees with her colleagues, is direct with her opinion or becomes animated when talking.

How is she viewed for doing those things? Are men viewed in the same manner?

Second, both genders have to break through the conditioning and evaluate each other (and their own gender for that matter) with the same criteria.

This by no means suggests that we should be clones of each other but if we are going to view assertiveness as a positive thing for a man, shouldn’t we also view that as a positive thing for a woman?

If we are going to criticize women for not getting along well with others, shouldn’t we also criticize men for that same quality?

From an employment law perspective, employers are required to use the same evaluation criteria for both genders and apply those criteria consistently.

Finally, as women, we have to be careful that we do not go along with stereotypes we may have internalized over the years and give the labels power.

When we go along with stereotypes and avoid engaging in certain behaviors because of how we will be labeled, we unintentionally reinforce those stereotypes.

If you have a point to make, make it. If you have something to say, say it.

Of course, that does not mean that you have to be a bull in a china shop if that is not your style, but let’s be honest — that typically is not a problem for women.

Often, women at work are not assertive enough (a topic for a future column). It is time to get rid of the labels.