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Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

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I study English at NYU, which means that my lecture halls are filled with twenty girls for every three or four guys. And yet, during class discussions, the vast majority of the comments were made by the guys. It’s not for lack of smarts on the girls’ end: I saw most of the girls nodding and adding to their notes, as though they could contribute to the conversation but didn’t want to speak out. I’m quite familiar with the feeling–I’ve spent most of my school career with my hand firmly unraised.

Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

Shy? Or just conditioned by society?

Because of my own non-aggressive nature, I’ve never questioned the general assumption that men are more assertive than women. My male colleagues always seem more comfortable asserting themselves or using aggressive tactics to get what they want, whereas most of my girlfriends and I tend to take a shy approach. So the statement “men are usually more aggressive than women” seemed pretty fair to me.

Or at least, it did, until I came across a study that suggests otherwise. It found that people predicted men would be more aggressive than women, which was true under normal conditions. However, when the researchers set up a “deindividuated” (a concept in social psychology that is generally thought of as the loss of self-awareness in group) setting where participants could act without the influence of social roles, women were just as aggressive as men. That means, when social expectations are set aside, women feel freer to assert themselves.

Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

We are naturally assertive, but submit to societal pressures encouraging us to be demure instead.

The results of the study have clear implications. If women only feel free to be assertive in a deindividuated setting, that means women have the potential to be assertive, but are shut down by perceived social expectations. It makes sense: girls are more frequently taught to be prim and modest, while boys are liberated to be aggressive as kids through the mantra “boys will be boys.” In many ways, we haven’t quite lost the idea of women as the fairer sex, and it’s reflected in the way we’re expected to behave.

Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

Anne Hathaway’s character learns to stand up for herself, from arguably the most assertive woman in fashion

Take negotiating salaries, for example. Women are generally less likely than men to negotiate a raise, but what if that’s only because we feel we can’t be as assertive? Perhaps we’re afraid of being portrayed as bitchy? A study found that women negotiate just effectively as men when speaking for a friend. That means women naturally have the necessary skills to negotiate well — even without practice. The problem comes from our fear of asserting our own skills and exuding self-confidence. Over and over, we’re sent subliminal messaging that women exist to be seen and not heard. Once again, we are perfectly capable of being assertive, but submit to societal pressures encouraging us to be demure instead.

Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

Sandra Bullock’s character is assertive in The Proposal

The good news is, you can use that information to your advantage. Next time you’re struggling to negotiate for yourself, try faking it ’till you make it. Pretend you’re advocating for a close friend. It’ll make it easier to assert your strengths if you silence your self-critic and step away from social expectations by approaching yourself as you would someone else.

When social expectations are set aside, women feel freer to assert themselves.

We have to kill this assumption that women can’t assert themselves. The widespread misconception is an attempt to silence women in the workplace and in our personal lives, and in response we have to make ourselves heard. In the end, there’s only one way to stop this notion that women can’t be aggressive: we all have to prove it wrong.

Do you ever struggle to assert yourself? How do you overcome it? Let us know in the comments!

Born in France but raised all over the place, Auriane has wanted to write ever since she was old enough to spell her name. In her spare time she loves reading, hanging out with her best friends (even when they're not in the same time zone), and spontaneous singing with her Broadway-bound roommate.

15 Comments

  1. Hazel Collins

    Even if we have different kinds of attitude and personality, we are all capable of doing what others can do. Being assertive for me is about realization and improvement. There’s a perfect time when a nice person will also realize that he/she will speak up and say what’s on their mind. No offense,for me why they think that men are more assertive than women was because people always see them as more inferior than women, their features,manliness and attitude (which is super duper wrong).Anyone can be assertive as long as she can do it and she wants to do it.

  2. If you girls want to be assertive, let’s practice our assertiveness on some hot males on Wall Street. Who’s with me?

  3. Gabby Williams

    As a mother, I need to be assertive. My kids need to know that I am their voice. It really changes you, motherhood.

    • Arabella Clarington

      I agree with you Gabby! Motherhood challenges you to be different, it brings out a “stronger” you…

  4. Francis Woods

    Women should never be silenced. But I must admit while I was growing up, I never opened my mouth. But when I got to be independent, I learned to be more assertive. I got to fight for my own rights, y’all!!!

  5. I was never the quiet girl in class. But perhaps that’s why some men are intimidated by me. But I will always say what I think, regardless of what other people say.

    • Francis Woods

      WOW JUDE, you’re amazing!!!

      • She is, isn’t she? Jude is one the most strongest women I know. Aside from Hilary, Sarah, and Rebecca.

  6. Hannah Mayers

    I was contemplating while reading this article and I suddenly came into a realization that I was less assertive (when I was younger) because I was taught to live in accordance to what others will think or say, that it’s not “nice” to consider my own needs (and wants) above those of others and that it would be improper to speak my mind and thoughts about others.

    But my career required me to speak up so that I could get appropriate responses from my colleagues.

    I’m really glad I found my way to become assertive 🙂

    • Francis Woods

      I’m really happy you’ve become more assertive, Hannah!!!

  7. Sandra Brown

    Another great article from Urbanette!

    I think, being assertive is like any other skills that can be learned and practiced. It is a “communication skill” that allows one to effectively express own point of view and be accepted while giving others due respect.

    • Francis Woods

      I agree its a communication skill that can be practiced. 😀

  8. Such an important article! It took me a while to feel comfortable enough to speak my mind, and assert myself when appropriate. This article totally helps me understand why I felt handcuffed for so long. Societal pressures really work against women!

    • Francis Woods

      I know right? I wish more women say what they really think and feel!!!

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