“We teach girls to shrink themselves”: 6 Keys to Assertiveness in Professional Settings

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The line in the title was spoken by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her Tedx talk “We Should All Be Feminists”. You may have also heard these words while jamming to Beyonce’s  “***Flawless” (which you so obviously do!). Adichie’s words speak of the pressure to be thin and physically small, but they also draw attention to the habit many women have of shrinking themselves, almost to the point of invisibility, in professional and other social settings. This is because, as Adichie says, we teach women “to have ambition, but not too much,” and “to be successful, but not too successful.”

You are probably familiar with these ideas already. But have you ever actually observed the women around you in meetings or other professional settings where power dynamics and hierarchies are clearly recognizable? I started doing this a few years ago when I was working on becoming more assertive. I wanted to model my behaviour on powerful women and learn from their example. There were always assertive women in professional settings, but I also noticed that there were some women who never spoke and used body language often associated with being “closed”, such as crossed arms, hunched shoulders, and looking down. Of course, these could be a result of a million reasons — maybe they were just cold (I’m always cold!), or bored or tired.

I realized, though, that I was doing the same because I felt intimidated or nervous for no other reason than that I was in presence of authority (and usually male authority figures at that). Was I communicating this through my “closed” body language? I would rarely speak during meetings, even if I had something important to say. And, when I did speak, my voice would waver, my heart would race, and I would speak so fast that even I couldn’t understand myself! Overtime, I learned to change my behaviours, but this involved recognizing the sexist microaggressions I was reacting against and the false beliefs that I had accepted as true for so long. So, based on my experience, here is a short list of things people, but especially women, may need to stop doing if they want to become more assertive and confident in professional settings.


1. Stop Shrinking Yourself – Strike a Power Pose Instead

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There is a another fantastic Ted Talk, this one by Amy Cuddy, a professor and researcher at Harvard Business School who studies non-verbal behaviour, called “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are”. In it, Cuddy talks about how “power posing“, which involves expanding your body and posing in a “high power” pose, for only 2 minutes, can stimulate testosterone (dominance), lower cortisol (stress), and increase tolerance of risk, leading to increased feelings of power! So, just posing like a superhero (or Beyonce!) can kind of make you feel like one. Interestingly, Cuddy’s own research came from the same observation that I had made in classes and meetings: that women were participating less and that their body language was associated with, what her research terms, “low power” poses. From my own experience, it was easy to see that some of the most confident students in my classes sat “expansively”, for lack of a better word. They took up more space, with their arms open and shoulders relaxed, communicating an open and comfortable attitude.

The implications of Cuddy’s research are great (and controversial) . They point to the fact that a simple modification in behaviour can have a vast impact on self-esteem and confidence, aka “faking it till you make it”. Furthermore, she also points to the fact that, with regard to influence, how people perceive you and how you communicate is more important than the actual content of your message, which is unfortunate in a sense, but a truism we have to contend with. So, next time you feel nervous before a meeting or a presentation, strike a power pose in the bathroom for 2 minutes and knock ’em dead.


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2. Stop speaking in quiet, soft voices deliberately so as not to offend – Speak up and get angry

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Every woman, at one time or another, has been told to lower her voice, to soften her demeanor, to stifle her anger, because it is perceived as unfeminine. Stereotypical media portrayals, advertising, and children’s toys drill these ideas into the minds of little girls–if their parents, families, teachers, culture and communities don’t get to them first. We carry this into our academic and professional lives as we get older. Some are fortunate enough to begin dismantling these attitudes in high school and university, but it can be a daunting challenge. It’s not easy to express your anger articulately when you’ve been told your whole life that you shouldn’t be “that girl” – the bitch, the crazy one, the dramatic one, the psycho. So, we swallow our voices and our anger and we learn to ignore our needs, concede and apologize, in favour of “keeping the peace”. Meanwhile, that anger is still there, except that now it turns inward to self-criticism, self-loathing and, eventually, depressed mood. We criticize ourselves because it must have been something we had done. We come to believe that if people like us they will come to appreciate our ideas, but this is not the case. The need to please and be liked can turn people into self-effacing, compliant martyrs who never have their needs met. This is especially true of women.

The harsh truth is that women need to accept that they may be perceived negatively if they do articulate their dissatisfaction, but we need to do so anyway if we wish to assert ourselves in the public and professional spaces of modern society. It may be a risk but, from my experience, it is worth the reward. This requires learning to express yourself clearly and assertively. Your ideas are important. You deserve to be heard. If you are angry, be angry. It is just an emotion, and not one you should be afraid to express. It is completely possible to express your anger in a calm, collected manner through the content of your message and wisely chosen words. As this guide points out, you can be passionate while still maintaining the professionalism of a workplace.


3. Don’t be a doormat!

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From Moscowtimes.com

Do you agree with authority figures, especially men in (perceived) positions of authority, unnecessarily? I used to do this. Having been raised in an extremely patriarchal culture played a big part in this, and is something I continue to struggle against.

I have seen many female academics get angry and disagree unabashedly in faculty meetings and it was so refreshing for me, as a student, to see these brilliant women express themselves this way. Of course, their credentials, position, status, and employment stability provide them with some security in this regard than, say, an entry-level employee, but it was also clear that there was a culture of collegiality in the room. These women were not making enemies by expressing themselves; their opinions were welcome and added to a lively discussion. I realized that the times when I had felt uncomfortable disagreeing with authorities in a meeting was because I knew that disagreements were not welcome. Eventually, I learned to rock the boat and work through the nerves of doing so. And, if I sensed that I was unwelcome because of it, I removed myself from the situation and from that organization (again, I had the luxury of doing so, I realize that some life and work situations are far more complex for many people).

Disagreements are necessary for an organization to develop and grow. Disagreeing does not mean you are arguing, but that you are making an argument. In fact, a good leader welcomes disagreements and alternative viewpoints. And, a good leader will follow up and try to learn from your perspective. There is absolutely no reason for an employee or subordinate to feel threatened, insecure or unwelcome for simply having a differing opinion. So, next time you have the urge to say something that goes against the status quo, do it! You will likely be helping out and helping to speak for others who feel the same way!


4. Stop Apologizing for Nothing!

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Image from Hellogiggles.com

Yes, this need to say “sowrry” is a delightful Canadian quirk. However, unnecessary apologies can also be indicative of our desire to soften our speech, to avoid offending others, to be polite, to avoid being an imposition etc. These are not the best reasons to say sorry. I, too, am guilty of incessantly saying sorry when I don’t need to but I have learned to curb the habit in professional settings and I did this by literally counting how many times I said sorry in a day. I realized that I was saying it even when I was putting my hand up in class, i.e “Sorry, I’m not sure if that’s true…” I was apologizing for another person’s mistakes because I was nervous about pointing it out and didn’t want them to feel bad!

Sorry is appropriate in many instances – when you need to truly apologize for something! But we use it so inappropriately that it’s starting to lose its significance. While saying sorry is a welcome sign of empathy, connection and caring, doing it for the reasons stated above beckons us to reconsider its use. Amy Schumer did an excellent sketch on this which hits the nail on the head perfectly:

5. Don’t accept unsatisfactory responses

Lemongrab

Ok, so you can speak up and assert yourself. You’ve asked a good question in a meeting or raised an objection. You deserve a satisfactory response. I have noticed that many times women will accept the weak responses given to them. Sure, sometimes the weak response is the best that the other person can offer. However, I’m talking about clear instances where the opposing party is giving you the equivalent of a patronizing pat on the head, i.e. “You tried.”

It can be challenging, as with everything else on this list, to “argue”. But, asking for elaboration, clarification, and more detail, is perfectly reasonable. Yes, it can take a lot of strength to even ask a question, and now the nerves and adrenaline may have exhausted you. You know that the answer given to you  is meaningless but why fight it? You did your part, right! Not exactly. Good argumentation is good communication. Arguing effectively is a valuable skill!  This guide offers very helpful advice on how to argue effectively (and again, argument ≠ conflict – but know that conflict is not a bad thing either!).

6. Stop speaking in run-ons and passive voice – Use strong declarative sentences

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As most of my readers know, I have been editing and grading papers for the last several years (so if you find grammatical errors in my writing…click here to report them). This has given me the opportunity to observe several faulty patterns in writing employed by both male and female students in order to appear more professional. Students tend to write in run-on sentences and use passive voice, which tends to only detract from the overall meaning of their argument. A similar pattern can be observed in speech. Women are especially prone to speaking in run-ons and using “non-committal” language. This may have an impact on the overall meaning one is trying to convey.

The key is to use short declarative sentences and active voice. Instead of saying (and writing): “We think that some mistakes may have been made in conducting the experiment,” it is better to be direct and say “We made mistakes in conducting the experiment.” The hedging found in the former is common in professional, business and scientific writing as well, but is poor practice. The meaning of the sentences gets diluted. Take this sentence for example, from biomedicaleditor.com: “A possible cause is likely the apparent tendency of a certain number of patients with diabetes to develop indications of retinopathy.” I have to read that sentence a few times to filter out the unnecessary words and glean its meaning, which is annoying. And, speech, unless recorded, doesn’t provide that luxury.  Thus, it is important to make the best use of our speech as possible in professional settings and use strong, declarative sentences.


These 6 points can also be applied to some people for whom English is an additional language, and for female international students, in particular. Some international students have expressed to me that it is not polite, as dictated by cultural mores, to ask a question of an authority, like a professor, let alone express disagreement of any kind. This negatively affects students because they tend not to communicate with their advisors and professors, and when they finally do so it is often too late. The fact is that direct communication in the Western context is often a skill necessary for professional success.
Furthermore, if you are in a position of leadership or authority it is important for you to be sensitive to the needs of people who may have difficulty speaking up, especially in a room full of people. The onus is on you to create an environment where people feel comfortable in voicing their opinions.

A Very Important Disclaimer

Women’s voices are now critiqued almost as much as their bodies. Myriad articles have been written about the vocal sins of uptalking, filler words like like, umm, just, I’m not sure, I think, and the dreaded “vocal fry“. I haven’t talked about any of these speech tics because I tend to agree with authors such as Debra Cameron who argue that critiquing women’s voices is “accepting that there’s a problem with women’s speech, rather than a problem with sexist attitudes to women’s speech.” Besides, I am guilty of all of these from time to time. I also use an excessive amount of emojis in text messages. And, my voice is deeper than most, so I have a natural vocal fry. On the other hand, to be taken seriously in the workplace, it is important to communicate effectively and confidently and uptalking and filler words signify timidness, tentativeness, and lack of surety, even though that is not what the speaker intends. This is true of academia, in particular.  I’m still conflicted on this topic because sometimes I find the aforementioned vocal tics annoying in myself and others!

The fact is that, while both men and women exhibit these tics in communication, women are unfairly criticized for them. Furthermore, Robin Lakoff, an expert on the subject from UC Berkeley, says that these vocal tics signify that women’s speech is more evolved to be adaptable and empathetic to others’ needs by establishing connection through the use of phrases like I guess, I think, actually etc.  Ann Friedman, in her New Yorker article, argues that we should just get over the way women talk, concluding that women should ignore all advice that asks them to change their speech habits. .

However, while I agree with most of what they are saying, I disagree with both Lakoff and Friedman’s black and white approach. In an ideal world, everybody would be taken seriously no matter how they spoke, but the fact is that all genders are judged on their linguistic and social behaviour. And some women of certain social classes and racial backgrounds have specific obstacles with regard to speech and presentation that Lakoff and Friedman do not consider. Therefore, I agree when Naomi Wolf says:

We should not ask young women to put on fake voices or to alter essential parts of themselves. But in my experience of teaching voice to women for two decades, when a young woman is encouraged to own her power and is given basic skills in claiming her own voice then huge, good changes follow.

I believe we need to stop judging women’s intelligence based on how they speak. While professionalism should be encouraged, we need to keep challenging what our perceptions of “professionalism” are actually based on. When I began to work on becoming more assertive, I didn’t consider the gender component until I started noticing the differences which were so apparent. Regardless, I chose to think about what I wanted my voice to be, and the power I wanted it to have when I spoke. I don’t think I “altered essential parts of myself,” rather by confronting my fears and the false beliefs that motivated specific language and vocal behaviours which I felt were impediments to success, I grew more confident and I was heard. My voice became more powerful and I became less afraid.

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