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How Women Can Be Assertive (Yet Lovable!)

The Careerist

June 12, 2016


I know you're tired of hearing about how hard it is for a woman to be in charge. But despair not: This time we'll give you ladies some tips on how to manage avoid the pitfalls.

Another study confirms what we all know: To get ahead, women have to be likable. It doesn't matter one iota that our next president might be a woman, or that the U.K. is getting a female prime minister in the Brexit aftermath, the unwritten rule for a lady leader is that she must be a lady. And that means no blatant displays of aggressiveness.

Analyzing over 70 studies about how people react to assertive behavior, business professors Melissa Williams of Emory University and Larissa Tiedens of Stanford University find that women tend to be punished for the same behaviors that we find perfectly acceptable for men. Writing in The Wall Street Journal about their research, Williams reports:

We found that women, on average, were disparaged more than men for identical assertive behaviors. Women were particularly penalized for direct, explicit forms of assertiveness, such as negotiating for a higher salary or asking a neighbor to turn down the music. Dominance that took a verbal form seemed especially tricky for women, compared with men making identical requests.

Got that, girls? You'll get hammered if you give off bossy vibes. And no one will like you if you if you dare ask for a higher salary (though Williams points out that it's acceptable for women to ask for raises on behalf of others). Moreover, you better be prepared to be scorned if you tell that jerk down the hall to pipe down.

"Women get punished for behaving the way men do," says Ellen Ostrow, a psychologist and career coach who specializes in female lawyers. And that, she adds, is even true for women who are expected to be tough and contentious on the job, such as trial lawyers. It might be fine for women to be aggressive in court, but when it comes to internal firm politics, women have less latitude. "Women litigators who are aggressive [in the office] will tend to be labeled bitchy," says Ostrow.

So what's the solution? Well, women can be assertive (sort of) if they deploy indirect, mostly non-verbal tactics. Williams writes:

We found that women weren’t penalized for assertiveness that was expressed through nonverbal means—such as through expansive bodily stances or physical proximity. Likewise, they weren’t penalized for using paraverbal cues, such as speaking loudly or interrupting.

Thank goodness women can at least speak loudly or interrupt. But what's that advice about "expansive bodily stances" and "physical proximity"? For starters, Williams suggests that women stand tall. She gives other examples or projecting power: "Women should feel free to drape an arm over the adjacent chair, to touch a colleague’s arm when speaking, or to lean in—literally."

I get the power pose stuff, but touching a colleague's arm or leaning in? Maybe I have a dirty mind, but might those gestures be interpreted by male colleagues as flirting? Are the authors of this study suggesting that women use their sexuality (lightly) to get what they want?

Not at all, Williams tells me. "My advice would not necessarily be that women should be more physical overall," says Williams, "but rather that they should use these specific nonverbal behaviors —e.g., using a louder tone of voice, putting an arm on the adjacent chair—that are known to communicate dominance." 

Contrary to my fears, Williams says "there’s no evidence that [the physical gestures] communicate flirtatiousness or sexuality in the minds of perceivers." Instead, she says they signal "warmth and engagement"—which is what women need to project if they want dominance and influence.

So once again women have to contort themselves into "nurturers" if they want to end up in a dominant position. Personally, I'd rather be brutally blunt and just be done with it. But Williams cautions that's probably foolish. She says it behooves women to learn what works: "While waiting for the world to change, aspiring women leaders will have at least a few tools available. Think of nonverbal dominance as a side door to achieving influence at work."

Well, at least women can go through the side door instead of the backdoor. Guess every little little bit counts. Pathetic.

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Vivia--thank you for posting this utterly depressing post--it had to be said. Because it is true. I absolutely followed this advice, without knowing it, in my career. What I found was that the "dominance" achieved via non-verbal or "para-verbal" (always cool to learn another buzzword) communication ultimately lays the groundwork for full on verbal assertiveness that is actually advantageous and well received. I'd love to see whether the studies took the longitudinal-view...And i agree --Christine Lagarde is a wonderful role model on this count. Also, physical contact does, I think, communicate warmth and can be helpful--by disarming a really obnoxious male. With women, it can be as simple as complimenting her--if you're in person--on her bright green high heels. Honestly, if they are great shoes there is nothing wrong or politically incorrect with saying so--who doesn't love great shoes? I am constantly complimenting men on their shoes--shoes make the man--am I right? Anyway, sisterhood can be achieved in many ways--some of them pretty old school. I think it's all about using your gut--your instincts for making friends in college, maybe kindergarten. We know from countless studies that warmth is as important to the prospective client as competence.

This article illustrates how hard it is for professional women. We have to work harder, be better, and be nicer. We can't just ask for more, we have to ask for it in the right way. It's a stressor that men don't even have to contemplate much less confront...

Good morning, Vivia,

For a great role model for "touching a colleague's arm or leaning in," look at videos of the charming Christine Lagarde interacting with colleagues. Lagarde is Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and former Managing Partner of Baker and McKenzie.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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