Tightrope: Walking as a Woman in the Workplace

By: Molly Shea, Edited by: Renee Schroeder

Two narratives about women’s assertiveness in the workplace are floating around: “Women should just be more assertive” and “assertiveness is a double-edged sword for women.”  Which is it? Or is it both? What is assertiveness anyway? While it may seem like women will entirely benefit from being more assertive, there is a second factor at play due to their gender — politeness.

Through trial and error, women in the workplace walk the tightrope between assertiveness and politeness by using strategies to balance the tension.

Assertiveness is the act of directly, openly, honestly and appropriately declaring one’s thoughts and feelings. It is a valued trait for both men and women in the United States and is considered a salient part of one’s professional identity. For women, assertiveness is in conflict with part of their feminine identity: politeness. Politeness is any communication act that makes requests less infringing on a person or that enhances the other person’s desire to be liked.

To manage politeness and assertiveness as a woman in the workplace is a fine art, and many times one comes at the expense of the other. If a woman is too assertive, she’s a “bitch.” If a woman is too polite, she’s “incompetent.” So, it’s too simple to say that women should “just be more assertive.”

In a 2014 study, communication researchers Tessa Pfafman at Western Illinois University and Bree McEwan at DePaul University explored the strategies working women use to balance the tension of assertiveness and politeness. Participants were asked about their experience as professionals and to describe powerful men and women at work. Researchers coded and analyzed the data looking for gender differences, politeness usage, and strategies for managing the tension at hand.

Researchers found that one strategy women use to manage this tension is strategic politeness, also called facework strategies. These are strategies we use every day to make requests in a less infringing manner, such as apologizing when asking for a favor. We also use them to enhance the other person’s likability, such as giving praise or understanding the others’ needs.

Angie, a woman from the study, had a boss who didn’t trust her information until she laid out sufficient evidence to prove herself. This is an example of facework. Angie also used facework strategies that enhance her boss’s likability when she often thanked her boss for his help and asked questions about himself.

Using these simple yet strategic politeness strategies to balance her assertiveness with her politeness allowed Angie to maintain the softer part of her image and protect relationships.

Another strategy women use is modifying their behavior by highlighting or hiding aspects of their identities.  One participant in her 50s, Linda, said she sees her professional and feminine identities as dichotomous and that she can switch back and forth between them.  She said, “they [women] can act like a man, but they can still act like a woman.  And they get to where they know when to hide it.”  Based on her experience, Linda highlighted the importance of language use and the ability to analyze a situation, when to push and when to pull.

Ultimately, women employ a strategic assertiveness, allowing themselves to renegotiate the meaning of assertiveness to include politeness.  They also give themselves the flexibility to modify their strategies based on the context and relationships at play. Perhaps one of the things women do best is understanding what a situation calls for and using that to their advantage, in the workplace or otherwise.

A subset of assertiveness, argumentativeness, is another area studied through women in the workplace. Argumentativeness is a way to handle conflict constructively, characterized by issue-focused disagreements. Verbal aggressiveness is characterized by personal attacks in a disagreement. In the workplace, argumentativeness is linked with leadership, better decision-making, enhanced credibility and overall workplace success. It’s important to note that not all assertive individuals are argumentative.

In a study, Dr. Nancy Schullery, researcher and professor at Western Michigan University, dove into a woman’s optimal level of argumentativeness in the workplace. How argumentative is a woman “allowed” to be? How argumentative should a woman be to move up in the ranks?

While previous research showed positive benefits of a woman’s high argumentativeness in the workplace, Schullery’s research showed that a moderate level of argumentativeness is optimal for women seeking advancement. She found that “it is valuable for women to be argumentative, but only up to a point.”

Hypothesizing why moderate argumentativeness is best for women, we can refer back to Pfafman and McEwan’s study. Assertiveness is a fine art — for women, that is — and, in most cases cannot be used in anything but moderation to be productive.

So, if we shouldn’t tell women to “just be more assertive,” what should we tell them?

Challenge the necessity of constant politeness.

  • If a man or woman makes a comment, such as “Wow, that was a little too forward,” ask them if they would have made the same comment if a man said it.
  • If someone asks for an explanation that they are not entitled to, say that respectfully, you do not owe them an explanation.

Leave the “bitch” rhetoric in the past.

  • Pfafman and McEwan’s study found that women associate assertive women with greater bitchiness. We can easily stop perpetuating this idea.
  • We can all notice the expectations we put on women and try to loosen up ones that are specifically constructed by gender.

By sharing how women strategically balance the tension between assertiveness, politeness and argumentativeness in the workplace, I am not telling women to stay in their moderated, gender-determined lane or that this tension is fair. However, in order for women to make change, we may have to manage our image and protect relationships on the way up. I think that’s okay. But I also think it should be encouraged for women to push back, starting by using the tips above.

It is up to you whether or not, or how often, or on what scale to walk the tightrope. You go first.

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