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Why is it important for women to be assertive in the workplace?

You can’t have missed the ongoing furore about the treatment of Labour deputy leader, Angela Rayner, in the House of Commons, with the Mail on Sunday reporting that she ‘tried to distract the Prime Minister by crossing and uncrossing her legs’.

This story once again brings into focus the sickening double standards faced by women. Organisations want to be seen to be inclusive yet they subject women to sexist behaviour at the same time.

Mysogyny in Parliament

Things might have improved over recent decades, but Labour’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, says: “There is not a single female MP or staff member in the Commons who doesn’t have stories about sexism and misogyny.”

      • In 2015, when Rachel Reeves was pregnant with her second child, she was told she wouldn’t be able to concentrate on having a baby and having a big job in Government
      • Ex-education secretary, Gillian Shephard, said one of her colleagues called all women Betty, claiming: “You’re all the same”.
      • Following a promotion, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman said she was asked: “Who have you been sleeping with?”
        • In 2004, Labour’s Barbara Follett recalled Conservatives pretending to juggle imaginary breasts whenever a woman spoke in the House of Commons

      As with Angela Rayner, media reports don’t help:

        • Caroline Nokes, the Conservative chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, commented that the media focuses on women’s appearances rather than what they say
          • Her Conservative colleague, Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton agreed: “Some journalists are incapable of writing about female MPs without denigrating their appearances rather than their policies”.

        Source: BBC News article

        The PM labelled the Mail on Sunday report: “sexist tripe”, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, called the story “misogynistic and offensive”, and Ipso (the UK press regulator) has received thousands of complaints.


        In a TV interview with Lorraine Kelly, Angela felt she had to wear trousers because she didn’t want people looking at her legs.

        Watch the 10-minute interview where Angela discusses the story and shares concerns about how her teenage sons would react:

        Angela was in a double-bind situation – say nothing and she risked being seen to condone the commentary; speak out and she risked coming across as a hysterical woman making a fuss.

        It’s not just Angela…

        I’ve worked with countless women who’ve struggled to get their voices heard and needed assertiveness to do so.

        • Marissa, who worked for a company that purports to champion diversity and inclusion, yet found her male colleagues had been earning 15% more than her over the past three years
          • Bethany, who was invited to express her views about a networking event, mentioned the lack of diversity, and had her opinions thrown back in her face because the male organiser didn’t like what she was saying
            • Schoolgirls who’ve reported feeling unsafe about calling out sexual harassment because it had become so normalised

            What is assertiveness?

            Assertiveness is not about being overbearing, bossy or pushy, even though many assertive women are labelled that way.

            It’s about using your mind, body and voice to command the spotlight and stand up for what you believe. It’s being honest, direct, clear, expressive, persistent and respectful. It’s knowing where the line is and calling out anyone who crosses it. 

            In short, assertiveness is the secret to powerful communication and the key to getting what you want and deserve.


             What gets in the way?

            Girls are typically brought up to be compliant, to play fair, not to take up much space, and not to show off. On the other hand, boys are often encouraged to run, shout and be competitive. 

            As a result, girls are not equipped to fight. We don’t get as much chance to take risks or put ourselves outside our comfort zone, exercise bold and decisive behaviours, or make friends with our inner ‘imposter’.

            We grow up tending to behave as we ‘should’ in a world that often isn’t fair. A world that disapproves of women who don’t conform. That approves of women being ‘nice’ over being respected. It seems society can’t handle powerful women – we’re labelled unfeminine, ruthless, mad, manipulative or worse.

            In addition, popular culture and social media teach girls that approval is based on their looks rather than their brains, actions or personality. This can lead to the belief that flirting is the way forward, whether that’s through revealing clothing, fluttering your eyelashes, using a ’little girl’ voice, or making passes at colleagues.

            The fact is, being “nice” doesn’t get women respected, doesn’t get us equal pay, and doesn’t get us to the top of our game. And although sexuality is a potent form of power, it’s a dangerous tactic to use in the workplace, and can often misfire.

            How to be assertive

            Here are my five top tips to boost your assertiveness.

            1. Start with a clear mind

              If your views are fuzzy, you will come across as wishy-washy. Clarity will provide a more positive impression of your place in society, make you happy to reveal your authentic self, give you the confidence to express yourself, and leave you open to differing perspectives.

              Clarity comes from understanding your purpose, identity, values and beliefs – these act as your foundation stones and will keep you strong under pressure, steel your resolve when the going gets tough, and lend power to your voice when you want to be heard.

            1. Channel your emotions

              You need to be comfortable with the whole range of emotions – that includes negative emotions such as anger, jealousy and rage as well as positive ones such as excitement, pride and joy.

              Not being scared of your feelings or trying to suppress them means you can learn to control them in the moment. Don’t let challenging emotions run away with you. Instead, sit with the discomfort, label the emotion you’re feeling, express it, and unpick it.

            1. Take the lead

              Assertiveness is an act of leadership. Rather than wait for someone else to take control or give you permission to do so, take the initiative and just go for it. Be the first to state your opinions, and then invite others to do the same.

            1. Use your voice

              Engage the power of your breath and your voice. Override the internal thought you might be carrying that you ought to ‘be quiet’ and explore the entire range and breadth of your vocal cords.

              This doesn’t mean shouting. It means filling your lungs with air before you speak so you have the capacity to maintain your volume rather than letting sentences fade out. This helps keep the attention on you.

              Speak slowly so you sound confident in your message. Take care to enunciate your words, as pronouncing every syllable helps get your meaning across. If your voice tends to get shrill when you’re nervous, practice speaking in a steady, melodic and resonant voice so you convey confidence. When making an important point, ensure your voice goes down at the end of the sentence rather than up.

            1. Choose your words

              Avoid fillers such as ‘um’, ‘er’, ‘so’, ‘sort of’, ‘I guess’, ‘you know what I mean’ – these often creep in when you’re nervous, but they distract from your message. Also avoid phrases that convey a lack of confidence such as ‘I’m not sure if this is right’, or ‘Does that make sense?’

            Replace your verbal habits with silence. Pauses are easier on the ear and give your audience time to process what you’ve said. Less is more.

            Prepare your thoughts in advance, for example: “This is important because…”, “This is the outcome I’m looking for…”, “This is what I want…” Keep your points succinct and avoid over-explaining.


            Next steps

            Awkward situations are an inevitable part of life. You need to learn how to stand up for yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will.

            Make friends with difficult emotions and learn to channel them appropriately. Don’t stick with being ‘nice’ and ‘likeable’ because that keeps you passive. Becoming assertive brings you respect and helps you step into your power.

            For more information, please see my book: Power Up, the Smart Woman’s Guide to Unleashing her Potential.

            If you have any questions, or you’d like to book a talk on this or any related subject, please get in touch.

            Antoinette Dale Henderson

            The Gravitas Coach

            Antoinette is an executive coach, keynote speaker and two-time author with over 25 years’ experience in leadership communications, including 16 years holding senior positions in some of the world’s top PR agencies.

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