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Women in the workplace – assertive or aggressive?

Reading an article titled ‘Women in the Workplace: If Women Don’t Stand-Up For Themselves, Who Will?’ led to me to asking the same question. If women are unable to stand up for themselves against their male colleagues, how will they be on the same level as them?

An individual standing up for themselves is a characteristic of assertiveness. However, within the workplace assertiveness can sometimes be displayed as aggressive or passive behaviours.

An example of the difference in thinking between men and women can be seen when seeking promotion within the workplace. The viewpoint on how to attain this promotion differs in both men and women.

“77% of women believe promotions are a result of a combination of hard work, long hours and education. However, 83% of men will tell you that ‘who you know’ counts for a lot or as much as how well you do your job.”

– Jeffrey Tobias Halter, Huffington Post

Although, women make up 47% of the UK workforce (Business In the Community) men dominate senior roles across most industries e.g. finance, law, engineering and even in professions such as teaching.

“Just eight women hold senior management roles in the UK’s top 50 firms despite females dominating the profession at entry level”

– The lawyer, 2015

So what is stopping women from progressing?

As seen in the statement above, women tend to take on a more passive approach, where as men are more assertive and more visible to their colleagues and bosses. This gives the impression that they are more engaged and want it more. Other times women mimic the communication style of their male colleagues, which results in them being seen as aggressive.

Women are twice as likely to be branded as bossy in the workplace than men.”

– Centre for creative leadership, 2015

If a woman is seen to be aggressive rather than assertive she may not be taken seriously and may be the target of teasing and demeaning insults. An assertive woman is seen to be opposing the stereotype of being nice and accommodating. This leads to labels such as bossy, demanding or condescending.

Often the problem is that women aren’t sure how to act assertively and confuse it with aggression. Although, men are just as likely to make this mistake they are less likely to be seen as being aggressive, because many of the characteristics are seen as masculine.

A few tips that might help women in the workplace:


Aggressive means being ready to attack and never letting anyone have an opinion.

Assertiveness on the other hand is being confident, standing up for your views but also respecting those of others. It’s about speaking calmly, letting others have their turn and acknowledging what they have said. As women, our voices can become high pitched and our speech can become rapid when we get upset – be aware of this. Breath and try not to talk for more than 40 seconds at a time.

  • Don’t speak first, Listen!

Rather than fighting to communicate your point, listen to what others are saying and use their words to express your own point – ‘piggyback’.

  • Don’t disagree all the time

Begin by agreeing with other people’s points, this can help you a build a rapport and trust. You can then use this to mould their points into support for your argument to get buy in.

  • Don’t make Statements

Asking questions can mean the conversation can be directed without disagreement. It also means that it can lead back to the point you are trying to make without seeming aggressive.

The good news is that assertiveness is a skill, which means it can be learnt. It just needs practice, effective communication, understanding verbal and non-verbal communication and self-awareness are key to assertiveness.

It is important to develop these skills in women in order to help them progress in their careers and reach their full potential. However it is worth noting that perceptions play a big role in stunting women’s advancement.

“57% of working women in the UK believe that unconscious bias is the biggest barrier to workplace success”

– HR Review, 2015

We need to raise awareness of how women’s behaviour and skills are perceived by male colleagues and bosses and conquer the biases!

These perceptions in the workplace cannot be changed overnight, however with more and more women now advancing to senior and board level roles in finance and law, progress is being made – slowly! At OPM our goal is to work with men to change attitudes and misconceptions and to work with women to give them the tools they need to become unstoppable!

For more information or to discuss women’s development in your organisation please contact us on or call 0845 544 2729 – also feel free to email comments and suggestions, and don’t forget to share!

Authors: Zarah Patel & Elizabeth Antoniou


women in the workplace 2

I am a Business Psychologist, I am looking to start chartership from next year to become a BPS Chartered Occupational Psychologist.

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