Gender Bias At Work: The Assertiveness Double-Bind

Gender Bias At Work: The Assertiveness Double-Bind

by Felicity Menzies
Research indicates that although there are differences in female and male leadership styles, those differences are small—there is significant overlap in how females and males lead. In contrast, however, there is a large disconnect between leadership stereotypes and gender stereotypes. This mismatch creates unique challenges for women aspiring to leadership roles.


The traits and characteristics that we typically associate with effective leadership endorse stereotypically masculine attributes like assertiveness, ambition, and competition and simultaneously discount stereotypically feminine traits like collaboration and homemaker. Because masculine stereotypes align with leadership stereotypes, a man is more likely than a woman to be assessed as a potential and competent leader. Feminine stereotypes, in contrast, negatively interact with leadership schema. Our ideas what it means to be ‘female’ do not fit our ideas of what it means to be ‘leader’. This disconnect, often manifesting as an unconscious preference for male leaders, contributes to the glass ceiling facing women in their professional careers.


Leadership theory prescribes that for women to emerge as a leader, they must display the traits commonly associated with effective leadership, including assertiveness. However, when women behave assertively, they may suffer a whole other set of consequences that men don’t typically experience.
Gender stereotypes are beliefs about the appropriate roles and normative behaviours for men and women in a society. Although gender stereotypes vary across cultures, they typically prescribe for men to be dominant, competitive and assertive, and for women to be submissive, warm and nurturing. Gender backlash is a form of stereotype bias in which women (or men) who breach gender norms suffer negative social or economic reprisals.
Consider the ‘double-bind’ or ‘assertiveness penalty’ facing women aspiring to leadership. Studies show that when women exhibit stereotypically masculine traits commonly associated with leadership like assertiveness, they are less-liked when compared with men exhibiting the same traits. In a 2008 study published in Psychological Science, men received a boost in their perceived status after expressing anger. In contrast, “women who expressed anger were consistently accorded lower status and lower wages, and were seen as less competent.” Another study showed women’s perceived deserved compensation dropped by 35%, twice as much as men’s dropped when equally aggressive in workplace communication. Because likability can be an even more important factor than competence for getting hired, women who breach gender stereotypes may jeopardise their career prospects.
Assertiveness backlash places women in a tenuous position. On the one hand, to emerge as a leader, women must adopt traits consistent with leadership stereotypes, i.e. act more stereotypically masculine. But, when women do act more assertively, they breach feminine stereotypes and suffer a likeability penalty that, in turn, limits their professional success. Not only do women need to work harder to be assessed at the same level of competence as men, they also need to work differently—treading a fine line between masculinity and femininity. Asking for a promotion, offering unsolicited opinions, challenging the status quo, negotiating for a raise, or speaking up about concerns may help a male employee get ahead, but a female employee could easily end up labelled as “bossy” or worse for the exact same behaviour.
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Studies illustrate how gendered expectations regarding assertiveness influence performance appraisals. Managers (whether male or female) are significantly more likely to critique female employees for coming on too strong whereas the same traits are perceived positively in men.
  • Women receive “negative personality criticism”, such as being called bossy or told to “watch their tone” in around 75% of performance reviews. Men, on the other hand, rarely do.
  • Women receive 2.5 times the amount of feedback men do about aggressive communication styles, with phrases such as “your speaking style is off-putting.”
  • Women are described as being “abrasive” far more often than men.


Ultimately, we should strive for cultural change such that women and men are not judged differently for exhibiting the same behaviour. In the meantime, however, research offers women some strategies for navigating the assertiveness double-bind.
 1.  Simultaneously communicate competence and warmth. Many women use qualifiers (just, maybe, I think, probably, very) and permissions (may I, sorry, excuse me) to soften their language so as to avoid appearing too aggressive, especially when making requests or stating their views. Qualifiers and permissions, however, can negatively affect perceptions of competence by suggesting uncertainty or weakness. Women can avoid appearing weak without breaching stereotypes by adding warm opening and closing statements but keeping the substance of their message clear and direct. For example, bookending emails with short friendly greetings and warm sign-offs can be helpful.
2. Use a brief framing statement. Women can reduce the assertiveness backlash by 27% by framing assertive statements with a “behaviour phrase,” a “value phrase,” or an “inoculation phrase’. Examples include:
  • “I’m going to express my opinion very directly; I’ll be as specific as possible.” (behavior phrase)
  • “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” (value phrase)
  • “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.” (inoculation phrase)
3. Adopt dominant body language and direct speech but keep messages communal. Researchers have also found that strong speech, facial expressions and body language do not trigger backlash when women also display and communicate collaborative qualities in line with feminine stereotypes. In fact, women who self-monitor this way receive 1.5 times more promotions than assertive men and three times as many promotions as women who don’t self-monitor. For example, Amy Cuddy’s power pose (below) or other ways of using your body to take up space, by standing tall, draping an arm over the chair next to you, putting an ankle across one knee, leaning back in a chair with your hands behind your head or holding your arms out wide are all effective. Other ways to establish dominance without initiating the backlash effect include speaking in a loud voice, lowering your eyebrows, interrupting, maintaining eye contact while speaking, using intrusive gestures such as pointing and avoiding hesitating while speaking.
4. Be succinct. While volubility enhances perceptions of power and competence for men, women who talk for disproportionately longer than others in professional settings are rated at lower levels of competency than men who talk for the same amount of time.
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Felicity Menzies is CEO and Principal Consultant at Include-Empower.Com, a diversity and inclusion consultancy with expertise in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, cultural intelligence and inclusion, gender equity, empowering diverse talent. Felicity is an accredited facilitator with the Cultural Intelligence Centre and the author of A World of Difference. Felicity has over 15 years of experience working with and managing diverse workforces in blue chip companies and is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants of Australia and New Zealand. Felicity also holds a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology.