Assertive females must face social stigma

Hillary Smith

Recently I read an article on Huffington Post (no surprise there) about how women need to ask for what they want more in their professional environments concerning salaries, job hours, etc. The author writes that women are often too nervous to actively negotiate such things, but she mentions that her friend and coach, who has instructed many women on the verge of leaving their jobs to ask their employers for what they want, has never had one client’s request turned down. She states that women perceive themselves as much more “pushy” than they really are and that men naturally engage in this ask-for-what-you-want behavior. Therefore, women should make it a natural thing, too.

I think this is a great reminder of women’s capacities to control their professional lives. I am in wholehearted agreement –– yes, women, ask for what you want! However, something was bothering me as I was reading this article, and that something is the fact that the side of this coin opposite the one in which women get what they ask for is the one in which women are still labeled “bitches” and “aggressive” for engaging in this more assertive behavior.

A Forbes article discusses how successful females have consistently been perceived as intimidating, cold, unattractive, etc., and it discusses how studies show that when women engage in assertive behavior, they are seen as aggressive. When men assert themselves in their professional environments, they are labeled just that: assertive with a positive connotation. But when women act in the same way, there’s a good chance they’ll get this “aggressive” label thrown at them. No doubt this is because men still dominate much of the professional sphere, so there is still a mindset, conscious or unconscious, in our society that women who do what men have always done are somehow not normal, behaving in ways they shouldn’t.

These persistent negative labels constitute an important part of what still needs to change in the job sphere. While they may not be as materially damaging as the pay gap, they perpetuate an environment of animosity and disrespect toward female workers and managers, who are considered in terms of these labels rather than their individual characters and strengths. Aside from being unfair, this does not make for a harmonious work atmosphere, which I would think would be an important aspect of the work’s success.

The first article shows that there are clearly plenty of women getting what they want when they ask for it without negative effects. But this is not universal. At the same time, many women who take charge –– women who are leaders, CEOs, managers or who just assert their right to ask for what they want in the workplace –– are still being branded with these negative terms. The “women should just ask for what they want and they’ll get it” advice does not seem to be guaranteed-success advice just yet. I think that before we start throwing that advice around, we should acknowledge the negative biases that are still prevalent.

So how can we reconcile these poles? Personally, I think that we should certainly encourage women to assert themselves in their professional environments, to ask for what they want. This is, after all, a necessary aspect of changing the system; women must actively challenge their boundaries and be loud. However, I think that we should encourage women to do this with the reminder that it may not always turn out how they want it to. We must acknowledge the possible negative outcomes. Moreover, we must continue to bring awareness to this double standard (men as assertive, women as aggressive) that persists. I hope that as women gain more positions in male-dominated professional spheres, this tendency to throw negative labels at assertive women will die out.