Sunday, July 27, 2008

Women in the Workplace: Assertive vs. Aggressive

By: Erika Kelley

I have been working since I was 16. And throughout the years I learned that the roles of men and women in the social and corporate world have evolved. However, early on, I also discovered that workplace stereotypes still exist. For women, it is often expected that we are to be submissive, eager-to-please, and supportive. However, if we're too nice and understanding -- we're considered emotional and soft. But, if we're a bit assertive and outspoken -- we're ice queens.

Men on the other hand are expected to be strong, forceful, and direct. What’s interesting is that in leadership and management courses, I ascertained that a “good” employee is one that exhibits directness with simplicity. A “good” employee is assertive, a trait very often exhibited by men; one that is accepted…expected.

So, the age-old question still exists: What's the appropriate stance or attitude women should have in the workplace?

My stance has been to follow the path of a “good” employee and break the “passive” female stereotype. However, instead of affirmation and recognition, I have often encountered negativity, more often from my female counterparts, and have occasionally been referred to as “aggressive.”

Here’s my story…

Over six summers ago, I decided to participate in flex-time at work. Instead of working the standard hours, 8:15 AM to 4:15 PM, I decided to change my hours to 7:30 AM to 3:30 PM. I’d miss traffic, get home in time to watch Dr. Phil with the hubby, and even have time to exercise! Sweet.

About half of the people in my office took advantage of flex-time; however, only a handful worked the early hours like me. The inconsistency between work schedules never posed a problem…until…well, allow me to explain.

With a project that surpassed its deadline and extension, my co-workers and I met frequently to consummate the project. A few times, the meetings were scheduled in the afternoon, from 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM. And like typical meetings in our office, they tarried and often exceeded the allotted time. No matter, an older (50+) Caucasian male, Michael (my former colleague’s has been changed to protect his confidentiality), that worked 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM (half hour lunch instead of an hour), would politely alert everyone that we should start wrapping-up, promptly at 2:45 PM. And that’s exactly what we did – wrap up – so that he would be able to leave at his scheduled time, 3:00 PM. What a considerate bunch, right?

Well the following week, Michael went on vacation. Like last week, we had another afternoon meeting, 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM. We started at approximately 2:15 PM and the meeting was still in session at 3:15 PM. Like Michael, I alerted the group that I would need to excuse myself in a few minutes, so it might be a good time to start wrapping-up. I expected everyone to concede, like they did normally. This time, however, was different. No one began to wrap-up. Instead, a female colleague asked me: do you mind staying a little bit longer? Being the team player that I aspire to be, I agreed to stay. The meeting ended at about 3:35 PM. Not a big deal, a five-minute delay.

Two days later, the same thing happened. A meeting that was supposed to begin at 2:00 PM started about 10 minutes late and was still in session at 3:15 PM. This time, I found myself thinking: Where is Michael? Things were so different when he was present at meetings. No one ever asked him if he could stay longer. Again, like Michael, I mentioned that we had exceeded the time allotted for the meeting, and now would probably be a good time to wrap-up. I was met with sighs and rolling eyes. A female colleague even said to me: We know you leave at 3:30, Erika. There was extra emphasis on the word “know” and my name!

I digress…Have you ever watched a movie where there’s complete silence and then a brass cymbal hits the floor? This is where the cymbal hit the floor in the midst of deliberate silence.

May I make a suggestion? Can we start our meetings on time, to avoid running over the allotted time scheduled for the meeting? I was met with blank stares. A female colleague spoke up: Most of us work 8:15 AM to 4:15 PM; have you ever considered working the core hours so that you’re available for afternoon meetings? I was ready to scream, kick, and yank my hair out. I felt somewhat attacked and felt this situation was very unfair. I knew for a fact, they, who happened to be all females – Caucasian, Hispanic, and African-American, would have never asked this of Michael, but I wasn’t sure why.

So, I looked at the differences: Michael was Caucasian, a male, and over 50. I was African-American, a female, and in my late 20s. But so what? Which is exactly why I said: Yes, I have considered working the core hours; however, my current hours better accommodate my lifestyle. I was then told: Well, you’re free to go. With that, I gathered up my belongings and said to the group: Enjoy the rest of your day; I’ll follow-up with you regarding what I missed tomorrow.

The office informant later told me that I had been dubbed: aggressive. Nonetheless, the meetings for the remainder of the week started and ended and time, as scheduled. And the week thereafter, Michael returned.

To be or not to be assertive? That is the question.


Anonymous said...

Love the article.


Erika said...

Thanks for taking the time to read this piece.

Amie said...

Exactly...unfortunately that is our society - however on the bright side of things, it seems to be changing with time. We do however need people like you to continue sticking to your convictions or else progress will not be made.

Nice article by the way!

Erika said...

It's often difficult at times because we have to work at our jobs for 8 hours. No one wants to work in a hostile work environment or run the risk of having a negative reputation.

I have no doubt though that more women will find the courage and strength to stand up for what's right.

Thanks, Amie!

Ari said...

Great article- Erika! I understand your frustration, and my comment is not to excuse the behavior of your female colleagues. However, I suspect that they feel the same way when Michael reminds them that the meeting needs to wrap up but do not have the "courage" to say anything to him. Very sad for them that they can be hushed by the presence of an older white male. Says a lot about them. Call me whatever you want...assertive or aggressive. The point is that in order to do what is right you sometimes need to just be assertive and then sometimes you must be aggressive. I don't take offense to being called aggressive. Great job!

Erika said...

Thanks, Ari! Point well taken. You know, I never looked at it that way.

And my new slogan just might have to be, "Aggressive is the new assertive." :-)

Jennifer said...

Great piece, Erika!

And yes, you have to go for what you know is right. Only you know what you need to make your life work, so allowing others to anticipate your needs and/or lobby on your behalf never works. And it does not matter what labels others apply, all that matters is what you decide!

I think you are being a great mentor of the young women with whom you work.

Erika said...

Thanks, Jennifer (for your comment and kind words)!

No one said it would be easy (or painless for that matter LOL), but it's so worth it in the long run to stand up for yourself and for what you know is right.

Anonymous said...

Erika, your article is a very poignant but sad commentary of the times that we are in. I completely identify with what you have experienced because I have also been subject to another standard. It's very unfortunate that there continues to be a different set of rules for the different "players" in the game. Very well written. Thanks for sharing. Danielle

Erika said...

Thanks for the comment, Danielle!

As you know, change doesn't occur over night. We must remain diligent and steadfast in our efforts for womens' (and racial) equality.

Salama said...

Great blog Erika. I am reading this before I begin my day and it's a great reminder. I've experienced on more than one occasion the need to be assertive/aggressive at work in order to be heard and respected. I work with a couple of women that are very "aggressive" and it's teaching me that in order to protect myself then I have to be just as tough. I have to set aside my desire to please in order to survive in my position. Thanks for writing such a great blog.

Erika said...

Hi Salama!

What you have experienced is the EXACT same thing that I have encountered due to my desire to want to ALWAYS work in an amicable work environment.

Consequently, this had led to me bending over backwards and going beyond the call of duty at times, and ultimately being taken advantage of.

I still strive to work in an amicable work environment, just not at the expense of my rights and doing what's just.

Thanks for the comment!

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