Are You Assertive or Aggressive?

Why is it that when a woman speaks up in a direct manner at work, she is labeled harsh or aggressive? “Who does she think she is?” is the consensus. When a man speaks up, he is said to be a decisive and strong leader. Psychologists agree that while outspoken men are described as persistent and savvy, outspoken women tend to be classified as a “pain in the butt.” 

Businesswomen face a particular challenge, since the ways women are expected to talk are at odds with our usual images of authority. The basic nature of men is to be aggressive and boastful, and society rewards them for it. From the time they are little boys, the goal is to be King of the Mountain—any way possible. Women don’t like to boast, nor are they innately aggressive, as men are. 

Peter Glick, professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., reports, “The expectation held by both women and men is that women ought to be nice. When women act assertively, they are perceived to violate the description for feminine niceness, leading them to be downgraded, specifically in terms of their perceived warmth or social skills—not in terms of their competence.” Glick is the author and co-author of several studies relating to prejudice in dealing with women.  

Understanding the uphill climb and stereotypes women still face today, even in the 21st century, means half the battle is won. The other half must be won by learning new skills.  

As an Assertiveness Training instructor for almost two decades, I’ve found that most people misunderstand and inaccurately describe what it means to be assertive. Assertive behavior results in a “win-win” situation for both parties, while aggressive behavior means that one person wins and one loses. Women are severely penalized for aggressive behavior; men are not. 

And here lies the crux of the problem. Because women often mistakenly copy the communication styles of their male counterparts, they are placing themselves in a losing situation. In other words, they’re communicating aggressively rather than assertively, and never realize their self-defeating error.

Professional women who have learned to speak and act assertively have found the ladder to the top a lot easier to climb. I say “learned” because a person cannot wake up one morning and decide to be assertive. Speaking and acting assertively in a beneficial way requires skills that must be learned and practiced through role-playing. 

One of the first and most important lessons learned through assertiveness training is the impact of voice and tone. Oftentimes, when women get angry or upset their voices unknowingly become high pitched and take on an accusing tone.  Here’s an example: “Steve, you’re always getting to meetings late. You know perfectly well that you need to give the first report. We’ve been waiting for you thirty minutes! Why can’t you be on time?” It’s that upward lilting intonation with the last word that is particularly accusative. Combined with a high-pitched voice, it nearly guarantees that you will be tuned out and possibly labeled as a screechy, whining woman. 

So what’s a woman to do? Here are a few tips:

• Replace accusative language with assertive language. Instead of saying, “You’re always late,” explain how a person’s tardiness affects you. Say instead, “Steve, I’m very frustrated when you arrive late every Friday for our committee meeting. Your report needs to go first, so it causes us to start late. In the future, I’d like you to arrive on time. Is that agreed?” In the event Steve is late for the next meeting, you say, “Steve, you agreed that you would arrive on time. I’m afraid we’ll have to replace you on the committee if you don’t keep your word.” 

• Lower your voice and speak more slowly. Women’s voices tend to become higher or shriller when they’re upset. They also speak more rapidly. When they complain, it reminds men of a nagging mother or teacher, so they tune you out. 

• Don’t hesitate to voice your opinion. At board or committee meetings, speak up more quickly if you want to get your turn at being heard. Men respond in a “New York second” while women speak up and respond in a “Deep South second.” You will think you’re being aggressive, but no one else will! This is the time to use your deep voice also. 

It is also important for women to reinforce assertive language with clothes and accessories that look authoritative. Suggestive garments, frilly, too-casual or collegiate attire must be avoided at all costs. Carol Kleemeier, CEO of Universal Laboratories in Hampton, Va., says when she dressed more powerfully, she received a higher level of respect and cooperation from her employees and clients as well. 

Dressing in an authoritative manner and mastering assertive communication skills can boost your career.  If your ride to the top has stalled or has been halted, I suggest you look into these tactics to see if they hold the key to further promotions and ladder climbing. 

Sandy Dumont is an image consultant and assertiveness training coach for women.   Contact her at (757) 627-6669 or

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Sandy Dumont

Sandy Dumont, The Image Architect, is a sought-after stylist and image consultant in the arena of corporate, political and celebrity image and has spoken to audiences throughout the USA, Europe and Asia. Sandy is a prolific writer and has published numerous books, eBooks and DVDs. Her books and speaking style employ psychological insights into how we perceive color, judge wardrobes and incorporate (or don't) social norms into our daily lives.

Sandy is a member of the National Speakers Association (NSA) and Past President of NSA Virginia, and Past President of the SE Virginia chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO. She consults with individuals and corporations and also conducts corporate and individual image makeover workshops on the subject of impression management and image skills. Sandy is also a keynote speaker at conferences both nationally and in Europe and Asia. She also does online image consulting and image makeovers for individuals and groups. 

Sandy Dumont has appeared on radio, TV and in print throughout the world. She was recently featured in a cover story with Money Magazine. In December 2009, she was the recipient of the Women in Business Achievement Award.

Sandy Dumont, The Image Architect, is MORE than an Image Consultant. For information, visit or call 757-627-6669.

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