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: “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.”
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?
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????”
“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.”
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..”
“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?
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?