“Assertiveness for women is double-edged. You need it to advance, but at the same time, you'd better hide it if you want to advance. Catch 22? You bet. Yet, when you frame assertiveness with adjectives like confident, strategic and determined, a woman's leadership capabilities become more appreciated.
“Assertiveness should never be considered a gendered characteristic,” says Shannon Huffman Polson, former U.S. Army Apache helicopter pilot and author of The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience and Leadership in the Most Male-Dominated Organization in the World. “Great leaders use the tools and approaches at their disposal in response to circumstance, and there are times that circumstance requires a leader to be assertive.”
According to Jennifer McCollum, CEO of Linkage, a leadership development and coaching firm, women need development and executive support. “Based on the 2019 results from our Linkage Women in Leadership (WIL) Institute. companies that invested in their women to attend WIL ended up with women leaders whose teams outperformed the norm, who were more engaged at work and were more likely to stay at their current company.”
Specifically, as data from WIL shows, women demonstrate more confidence in asking for resources, delegate more effectively and prioritize better. More personally, women who attended the developmental conference learned to focus on their health and self-doubt and self-criticism holistically.
Leadership and assertiveness
“Women leaders need to be able to be assertive because they are leaders, who happen to be women,” says Polson, an executive turned women’s leadership speaker and consultant. “There are times— perhaps more often for women than for men given a cultural tendency to discount women's contributions—when assertiveness is required.”
According to McCollum, “organizations must also embrace a leadership style that is different than that of men and not look for women to assimilate to the male-dominated culture but instead recognize the value and power in this female leadership style.
What men can do
One reason women feel they must downplay their assertiveness is the reaction from men; they fear ostracization. In this regard, Joe Biden serves as a good role model. In a notable debate in 2019, Harris took the gloves off. She questioned Biden on his position on school busing in the 1970s and his ability to get along with segregationist senators of that era. More than a few Democrats felt Harris had gone too far. After all, Biden has been a champion of human rights and a loyal vice president to America's first black president, Barack Obama.
“Men can learn to regard assertive women with the respect due a leader who is not only responding to the requirements of a position but also has honed strength and ability in doing so despite cultural resistance,” says Polson.
In choosing Harris, Biden demonstrates that he wants a partner in governance, one who is not afraid to speak truth to power. Every leader needs an honest broker who can tell him/her the truth. Doing so requires an ability to assert one’s own self-confidence.
What Harris represents—as every woman in a leadership position represents—is something Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein said, “Don't live down to expectations. Go out there and do something remarkable.”