In Career

Being direct and assertive is not a character flaw

I find that when men are direct and assertive, people expect it of them and enjoy it.

When a woman does it (such as myself), people consider it a flaw.

Case in point: I had a woman project manager pull me aside one day and say:

Manager: “MM, I don’t know if anyone has ever told you before, but you have a very direct, assertive approach.”

Me: “Yes, people have said that to me before.”

Manager: “Umm.. Well actually it’s an approach I think is too hard for you, and I’m sure you don’t really know what you sound like to others. Basically, you need to soften your words.”

Me: “………………………………….”

Me: “In what manner?”

Manager: “Use words that are softer, more explanatory, less deliberate and direct. You need to ask people their opinions, say “We” more often, and be less straightforward.”

Me: “…………………………………”


Needless to say, I didn’t take her advice and I realized she had a preconceived notion of how a woman should act.

WHY CAN’T YOUNG WOMEN BE ASSERTIVE?

Oh right!!

Because then everyone would call us BITCHES.

Look, I try not to soften my words or couch them deliberately into palatable sentences that make people think I don’t have a real opinion or I can’t get to the point.

I don’t say:

“Umm I think we should take the approach Y????”

I say:

“We should take approach Y because of A, B and C reasons.”

I’ve seen this direct and assertive behaviour in other male team members and when I asked one of them one day if she had done the same, one of the guys said:

“Yeah! She said that she understood that I talk like that because I was good at my job.”

WTF?

I realized that she was directing those comments at me because I was a young woman who she thought should not have been talking or acting like that.

Then I started noticing the way she spoke — like she was still 13 years old!!

Soft, indecisive, halting, trailing off, lots of question marks in her intonation… it sounded like a young person trying to express their thoughts for the first time.

STEREOTYPICAL SPEECH OF YOUNG WOMEN

I also noticed that her other protegees were speaking the same way.

I don’t know if you’ve ever done, noticed or experienced the following, but I’ve noticed this behaviour in myself ever since I started coming out of my shell in high school.

I’ve done all of the following and I notice it in other women too:

Take the blame onto themselves when it is ill-deserved

“Perhaps I misled you, let me explain..”


Cover their opinions with uncertainty

“Ummm maybe we could think about this.. I don’t know”

Use a lot of generic words so that nothing sounds like it’s coming directly from them

We have thought about this, and we decided that maybe we should…”

Ask for validation and confirmation all the time

“What do you think? Do you think it’s a good idea? I know it sounds strange..”

Beat around the bush rather than being direct

“Well I was thinking the other day.. no it’s a bad idea. Well, it’s just that maybe we could you know, get to it another way because you know, your opinion is definitely valid, but I think we could maybe add more to it and change a few things, but the idea would totally stay yours OF COURSE..”

instead of

“We should do it another way. What you’re proposing is not ideal for the situation because of X, Y and Z.”

Can you imagine if someone you admired greatly, talked like a 13-year old pre-teen trying to find themselves?

Would you trust them as a leader?

Would you think that they could do their job and are knowledgeable?

I wouldn’t.

IT IS A FINE LINE TO WALK

The key is to be confident, decisive and assertive, but to still be open to other opinions by being flexible.

It’s good to at least get your opinion out there so that people hear your voice and listen to what you say rather than think you’re some marshmallow in the corner, sittin’ pretty but not doing much else.

I’m still working on my words to improve my delivery, but I am not going to step down a notch just because a woman manager thinks that a young woman shouldn’t speak like an assertive person because she’s afraid of being called a ‘bitch’.

That’s just ludicrous.

In that case, I gladly accept the ‘bitch’ tag if it means I don’t have to try and remember how to water down my words each time I open my mouth.

Have you ever experienced anything similar?

 


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Sherry of Save. Spend. Splurge.

I got out of $60,000 of debt in 18 months using TheBudgetingTool.com. Since then, I have worked 50% of my career (taking 1-2 year breaks), and quadrupled my income within 2 years of graduating, going from $65K to $260K (savings rate = 85%). I could retire today if I wanted, but love my work-life balance as a freelancing consultant in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math). I also post daily on Instagram @saverspender.

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15 Comments

  1. S
    Sally

    Your first example is perfect- using the word because really helps you get to the point and be clear and direct. I have always been very deliberate with my words at work, but I have never been asked to tone it down- this is most likely because my demeanor seems to come across as very mellow and laid-back- it’s not something I’ve tried to do but I’ve been told so many times that I am so “Zen” and “calm” that I’ve accepted that this is simply what people perceive when they meet me. But because of that, it’s worked to my advantage because like you, I can’t stand wishy-washy language and I am always very direct and to the point. However, it doesn’t seem to put people off too much. The only times I’ve struggled with communication is when I am surrounded by men or women who are not direct and then I become flustered by them: say what you mean and tell me what you want me to do already! 🙂

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      Hmm. Maybe I have to work on my TONE of voice for deliverance. Thanks for the tip, I’m going to take a softer tone.

      Reply
  2. A
    Aleksie

    This is quite true women, but I think race coupled with gender especially make anything one says that isn’t agreeable and affirming seen as negatively assertive and bitchy.

    With a few of the things I work on, I’ve noticed that offering critique even if it’s well-constructed and requested is not welcome. I find this leadership highly ineffective and coddling; I’ve noticed that people who lead like this are seen as kind of fake, because people have differing views and it doesn’t have to be a big deal. The other frustrating part is when someone is in the wrong and clearly so, people would rather appease that person than actually say/do something. When I finally do something, everyone thinks I’m a huge bitch (no matter how nicely it’s worded) because suggesting an issue hurt someone’s feelings. I find that troubling, because people are more invested in protecting the “nice” person than the people who were actually vulnerable.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      I get that a lot. I suggest things or bring up issues to discuss and I’m a bitch for rocking the boat. Do they want to get to the right answer collectively or just follow blindly down and over the cliff?!?!?

      Reply
  3. Michelle

    Yes. The whole time I worked my old job I was given a hard time for being direct-even though the people I worked with told me that they liked that I was direct and honest. It bothered my colleagues so much that they would soften everything that I said-behind my back. It was incredibly insulting and part of why I was just tired of working there.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      I don’t understand this culture of softening. I am diplomatic but I get to the point.

      Reply
  4. Amanda @ My Life, I Guess

    One of the best things that I’ve learned from my soon-to-be-husband is assertiveness.
    I used to be a lot more quiet, shy, used ALL of those phrases above, etc. My first “real” job was in a toxic work environment where my male boss was abusive and a total bully. I wasn’t necessarily assertive before this experience, but it definitely broke me down and it took a long time to learn to overcome it.
    As much as I hate the rental property we’re in, and hate my current GM, both of these experiences have taught me to stand up for myself (thanks largely to my fiances encouragement, too). I know there’s still a lot more I can do, but I’m happy with the progress I’ve made 🙂

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      I still get nervous standing up or saying things that I know are confrontational to many other people but I’ve soon reached a point where I don’t care.

      Reply
  5. S
    SP

    It is a very fine line. Men have a LOT more leeway. In my world, assertiveness and directness is prized in women and men alike, but women ALSO are expected to be diplomatic.

    There is often a way to be diplomatic and direct, and both men and women would do best to take that approach when it exits (and most people are too indirect in general). BUT when the diplomacy is lost and the approach is simply direct/assertive, people do not fault men the way they fault women.

    I have a quite junior coworker who is very assertive and direct, and can be harsh in tone in situations that don’t call for it – a more friendly tone would get better results. In other situations, it is absolutely the correct tone to take. I would think the same if it were a man or woman. HOWEVER, this is much more common in men, it will raise fewer eyebrows, and would be far less likely to be commented on in a review. That is a big problem.

    I have a natural talent for diplomacy, and am very direct when I’m comfortable with the people I’m talking to (less so in large, unfamiliar groups). I have a weaker talent for assertiveness. I actively try to be more assertive than feels natural, and consider if my words were as direct as I imagined them in my head.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      That is exactly it.
      I actually couch my words in softer tones just to get things done because they can’t expect a woman saying such things and a man accepting it… Yet.

      Reply
  6. A
    ArianaAuburn

    I am working on trying to be more assertive. But it is a slippery slope because you really can’t predict how a person is going to interpret your words (especially in the workplace). I have noticed that a lot of female managers do a combination of sweetness mixed with assertiveness when speaking to male subordinates or co-workers. But that is hard to pull off and frankly, it’s more mentally taxing than getting to the point of things. What shocks me is that even female coworkers don’t like the assertiveness and do not realize how societal conditioning has affected their views on how women should act.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      Agreed!!!! Every woman I have met so far with very few exceptions do not like to assert themselves. They don’t even ask questions.

      Reply
  7. Elroy

    Bitch. 🙂

    While I won’t pretend to understand the issues of those who lack a Y chromosome, especially the lack of said chromosome – I’m constantly told to “dial it down.” But, what I’ve come to realize in my short career is, business is all about manipulating people. So, if there is an approach to get someone or a group of people to come to the same conclusion you want them to, isn’t that better? Sure, sometimes we need to throw out the stupid self help books and let someone know how everything is going to go down, but I’m TRYING to start at the gentler, kinder version. I’ve also come to learn, there is value in people thinking you’re a nice person, even if you’re not. But, that is another rant.

    Reply
    1. save. spend. splurge.

      Hahahahah! You and I are alike then. I’m learning how to say things nicely but it just sounds so stupid to me. I’m learning new vocabulary from others though which is helping me.

      Reply
  8. Taylor Lee @ Engineer Cents

    Honestly, I’ve done the “we” thing, though mostly in writing and out of habit due to scientific papers (“Science is a collaborative effort!” said all my TAs). But yeah, a lot of women at my company do this. They also do a thing where they insult their own intelligence when asking a question, like, “I might be the idiot in the room, so can you explain to me X?” It drives me batty.

    Reply

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