Why Leaning In and Assertiveness Are Not the Answers for Women

I recently ran focus groups for the senior women in an organization to ask what helps and hinders advancement for women in their company. In addition to the usual issues about men taking credit for their work and ignoring their ideas, these women raised a theme that I found especially troubling: they repeatedly asked for training to help them stand up to men who behave inappropriately. It felt wrong to me that these women felt individually responsible to correct deeply embedded societal misogynistic attitudes toward women by getting training to be assertive. Ruth Whippman, writing for the New York Times, points out that complex, systemic problems cannot be fixed with individual self-improvement.

Whippman goes on to state that the current popularity of focusing on building assertiveness skills for women is in fact blaming the victim. She points out that when companies say women get lower pay because they are not assertive enough to ask, this is a way for corporations to blame female employees rather than pay them fairly. She further notes that it is not true that women don’t ask for raises and promotions. Research shows that women ask as often as men—they just don’t get the raises and promotions.

Shirley Leung, writing for the Boston Globe, notes that “it’s the workplace that needs a reboot when it comes to hiring and advancement,” not the women. She points out that research shows male candidates often believe they are qualified for positions when they are not, while women hesitate to apply because they don’t feel qualified enough. Women don’t need to be fixed, says Leung, they need a nudge to apply. If hiring managers interview only people who apply without looking around at what talent in the organization might need encouragement to apply, they could be missing the best candidate. It’s also not true that women aren’t confident and ambitious. Leung cites a 2016 study by Bain and Company that shows women are confident and ambitious and aspire to senior leadership. “Yet,” she notes, “few companies have gender parity at the management level.”

One problem is that the focus on assertiveness reflects a valuing of masculine characteristics and a devaluing of feminine ones. Whippman asks why we pour tax dollars into encouraging girls to take up STEM subjects, but we don’t encourage boys to become nurses. These actions assume that what men and boys do is normal and desirable. What if, instead, we assumed that feminine characteristics were normal and desirable? After all, overassertiveness in men has resulted in

  • Women being talked over, patronized, or ignored at work
  • The need for the #MeToo movement
  • Campus rape
  • School shootings
  • President Trump’s Twitter attacks

What if the feminine characteristics that are undervalued were considered normal and desirable? Such as

  • Apologizing or taking responsibility for our actions
  • Self-examination and moral reflection
  • Being more deferential
  • Listening and reflecting on what you have heard
  • Modesty, humility, and cooperation

Imagine how much more civil and inclusive the workplace would be.

What needs to change?

  • Instead of assertiveness training for women at work, let’s have deference, listening, and empathy training for men.
  • Both women and men need more feedback to show women they have skills to advance and to give men more realistic feedback to set appropriate expectations about what they need to advance.
  • Interview slates of candidates for positions that consist of people from a variety of backgrounds.
  • Invite women to apply for positions instead of including just those who self-nominate.
  • Focus more on skills and less on “fit” or likeability during interviews.
  • Train managers on how to understand the experiences of women in the workplace and how to create conditions that help women succeed.

Let’s stop blaming the victim with assertiveness training.


Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

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