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Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

…or are social expectations messing with our minds?

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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.

Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

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.

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.

Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

Shy? Or just conditioned by society?

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.

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?

Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

Sandra Bullock’s character is assertive in The Proposal

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.

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.

Are Women Less Assertive than Men?

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.

Reader Discussion: 79 Comments

  1. I learned from a public speaking class that men tend to be assertive when it comes to talking because their voice is naturally loud and it helps in getting people’s attention when they speak. Whereas women tend to be soft spoken at times and they really have to force the volume of their voice in order to get people’s attention (sometimes). Anyway, I learned that women should atleast mimic that monotone and loud booming voice in order to ace public speaking. I think the same goes with speaking to someone but yeah, no yelling.

  2. Cecilia White

    This is a myth that women lack in assertiveness. Whoever said that lives in the old ways.

  3. Mary Judah

    I teach my daughter how to balance her assertiveness. I teach her how to speak her mind and at the same time filter the things that she speaks about. Just like the idea of freedom of speech, you can’t always speak your mind without thinking if it can affect other people negatively. It’s the same thing with being assertive. You can’t always keep asserting when you’re not in the right place to assert. We need to teach things to be kind yet know how to fight back.

    • Rachael McAlister

      Kudos to you as a parent. Balance is very hard to teach and I totally agree with this. Raising a kid that’s sympathetic and at the same time a fighter.

  4. Jamie Baldwin

    There’s a lot of misconception about being assertive. People assume we want to be dominant when in fact, we just want to speak our mind.🤔

  5. Tara Neel

    This only shows one thing: men are the ones who easily blurt out some BS, while women listen and think about what is being said. Ergo, men make more mistakes than we do.

  6. All you have to do is be firm, girl! No need to be rude or anything. Just make sure you get what you want.

  7. Kelly Bretz

    Yes, we can be aggresive too! That doesn’t mean that we are pushy or insisting! We only want to feel heard and respected in equal proportions with men!

  8. Elizabeth King

    Men can really take pride in what they talk about and I think their voice also has something to do with being assertive.

  9. Belinda Campbell

    Social constructs such as gender-roles are important for our own survival, I believe. I can’t think of a world where everyone gets to do what everyone can, without limits or expectations. If that would be the case, assigning genders on birth is not necessary anymore.

    • Wendy Rice

      No, you are wrong. I think that social expectations are the hindrance to empowering women and results to backwardness of humanity.

  10. Leah Payne

    If you think you deserve something, fight for it. I think being assertive can be understood in different levels. I think letting opportunities pass just because you don’t like asserting yourself can become a problem, especially in the workplace. Raise is a very important thing to take note of especially if you think you need an upgrade in your career and you think you deserve it. Being assertive is a must in certain areas of your life and you have to learn it so you can go further.🙂

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