Being Assertive Can Backfire on Women in Business

September 22, 2015 Rieva Lesonsky

women in business

Is being forceful and assertive at work a good or a bad thing? Apparently, the answer depends on whether you’re a man or woman. A study by VitalSmarts compared people’s reactions to both a male and a female manager speaking forcefully and assertively. They found that when women spoke forcefully, they are perceived competency drops by 35 percent. Even worse, the women’s perceived worth declined by $15,088 — a significantly bigger decline than that for men spoke the same way.

The gender discrimination effect was biggest when study participants were told the woman was a subordinate or peer to the person she was talking to. When the woman was described as the person’s boss or supervisor, she was not judged as harshly.

What does this result mean to women in business, and especially women entrepreneurs? Here are a couple of takeaways from the study:

  • Take a closer look at your own attitudes. Even women can sometimes judge other women harshly. Be honest: do you uncover any internal bias against women in business who are assertive and speak their minds? Do you react the same way to men who are assertive at work?
  • Monitor what goes on in your workplace. Make an effort to be sensitive to how your employees speak to each other and how you speak to them. If necessary, encourage women who don’t normally speak up at meetings or in discussions to voice their opinions. Be aware when other employees (either male or female) subtly or not so subtly put down women who speak forcefully.
  • Be aware of how you speak. I’m certainly not suggesting you become meek and mild and stop speaking up just so people will feel more comfortable with you. However, the study did experiment with some “framing statements” that can be used to improve listeners’ perceptions of assertive speech—whether you’re a man or a woman. These include:
  • Behavior phrases: Explain your behavior. “I’m going to express my opinion very directly; I’ll be as specific as possible.”
  • Value phrases: Share the values that are leading you to be so forceful. “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.”
  • Inoculation phrases: Prepare people for the “shock” of what they’re about to hear. “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.”

The study authors say framing statements can work for both men and women in business and help to tone down any negative backlash that may arise from speaking forcefully and assertively. Knowing when to use such framing statements can help both you and your employees be more effective in discussions, negotiations, sales and other common situations you’ll run into in business.

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Author information

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email Rieva at, follow her on Google+ and, and visit her website,, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.

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