How To Be an Assertive Woman in the Workplace and Kick Ass at The Same Time

Being a woman in today’s work world is hard. It just is. And sure, there are reasons as to why it’s challenging to be a working woman in 2016. I mean, the business world used to belong entirely to men, with women being told that their ‘place’ was at home, cleaning and raising children.

We’ve grown a lot as a society over the years though, and now we understand that inequality between men and women is just plain wrong. Yet, if you’re anything like me, you may find that you still encounter outdated expectations about how women should behave in the workplace. What we wear to work, who we talk to, how emotional we are, and how we solve problems are often topics of discussion, yet men are treated differently. Men can sit down at a boardroom table and feel confident about their place at the table, while women sitting at the same table may still have questions swirling around like “Should I speak up here?” or “Will my opinion be equally heard and respected?”

Take the 1960’s advertising world of “Mad Men,” for example. The Mad Men TV series shows us the chauvinistic workplace of the 1960’s, and the gender issues that were prominent at the time. The characters in the show struggle with power and gender roles, and let’s be honest, the women in the show are totally portrayed in subservient “know your place” kind of ways.

By Jaclyn Kessel
By Jaclyn Kessel

As time has progressed, so too have our understandings of gender roles, thankfully. Over the last few decades, women have been stepping onto the playing field and hitting HUGE home runs.

We’re proving that we’re strong and talented across numerous platforms and industries, and that we can be mothers AND primary bread winners AND nuclear physicists AND yoga instructors AND anything else that we want to be. And it’s about damn time!

So what do we do when we encounter outdated ideas and beliefs about how we should behave at work? How do we, as women, stand up for ourselves in a positive way in the workplace while continuing to do the job we were hired for?

A few years ago I was in a somewhat senior position at a large animation company. I worked with the VP on a daily basis, and with the CEO on a weekly basis, and luckily for me both the VP and the CEO were women. I say “luckily for me” not because I don’t like working with men, but because I truly value the experience that I had working with these two women. I mean, I had the opportunity to work closely with two women who had worked their way to the very top of the work world, and they didn’t get there by being submissive or subservient to men. They earned their positions by asserting their opinions and by not backing down when challenged by the men around them.

After a few months of working alongside these two women, I learned pretty quickly how to gain respect from men in the workplace. And the word to remember ladies is: assertive. Successful and happy women in the workplace are those who are assertive with their ideas and opinions. Because the truth is that not everyone is going to find your ideas inspiring and amazing. And that’s totally okay. What’s really important is that you express yourself anyways and push past the fear of being judged.

Michael Morgan, a marriage and family therapist from Salt Lake County, Utah, explains that “people learn how to treat you based on what you accept from them.” With that in mind, men have learned to treat women in disrespectful and unequal ways in the workplace because women have historically accepted it. And now in 2016, more and more women are asserting themselves and saying that they are no longer willing to accept the gender inequality of the work world (woo hoo, go ladies!!).

So, what does assertive communication look like? Well for starters, there are four main styles of communication: the passive style, the aggressive style, the passive-aggressive style, and the assertive style. And as you may have already guessed, the assertive style is the most effective form of communication out of the four, which is why it is something that every woman should know about.

Assertive communication recognizes that each person is in charge of their own behavior and has the freedom to decide what they will and won’t do. This style of communication also recognizes that others are in charge of their own behavior, and does not attempt to take that control from them. An example of this is expressing your needs and feelings directly and honestly without expecting others to be persuaded by what you say.

As a woman, it’s often difficult for me to remember to be assertive, specifically because of how I learned to communicate growing up. When I find myself stressed or anxious, my communication style tends to slip towards passive and passive-aggressive because it’s what I know best. Therefore, I have to make a conscious effort to be assertive by reminding myself of specific things that I can do.

Here are 7 ways that you can be more assertive at work:

  1. Pay attention to your nonverbal communication. An assertive nonverbal communication style demonstrates respect for yourself and the other person, and indicates an expectation that your point of view will be heard. Don’t hang your head when you talk and treat your opinion as if it isn’t worth valuing. Hold your head high and keep your body language positive.
  2. Maintain an upright posture with shoulders back and feet equally distanced apart. Stand with equal spacing between yourself and others, and don’t hide behind others or push to stand in front, rather keep a position that feels comfortable to you and to others around you.
  3. Keep up frequent eye contact with others, occasionally glancing away. Tell yourself that you are equally part of the conversation, and treat yourself accordingly. And whatever you do, don’t roll your eyes at work. Ever. Eye-rolling is seriously disrespectful, and you need to be able to treat others with respect if you are asking them to respect you in return.
  4. Keep your fluency & flow of words even and consistent, without rushing ahead to say everything quickly or hesitating and second-guessing yourself and backing down.
  5. If asked to take on more work, consider what is best for you and only accept what you feel happy to accept. If you hear a voice inside you saying “ugh, fine, I guess I’ll do it,” then do yourself a favor and say “no” to the additional work. The more you listen to yourself, the easier it will be to assert your needs.
  6. If you find yourself leaving a meeting without having expressed your opinion, put yourself out there and go back. Express your opinion to your boss or whoever was leading the discussion. Don’t think about it. Don’t talk yourself out of it. Go back and say what’s on your mind in an appropriate and polite way. Explain that you thought of something else you’d like to add, and go for it. The exercise is about getting better at expressing yourself, and the more you practice listening to your inner voice, the easier it will become to assert yourself in the moment.
  7. If you sense that there’s inequality between your male coworkers and yourself, say something about it. Tell your boss. Even if it feels uncomfortable or you don’t want to make a big deal of it, remember that people learn how to treat you based on what you accept from them. So stop accepting unequal treatment. If David got the assignment that you were working towards, say something. The worst that will happen is that your boss will say no. And even that is positive. Standing up and saying “Hey, this isn’t right” is a huge accomplishment and is something to be proud of.

If you find yourself surprised or conflicted by any of the above content, I really encourage you to keep looking into this topic. Do some research and read up on what it means to be an assertive woman. One book that I whole-heartedly recommend is The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy J. Paterson, as it not only reaffirms the ways that each person should be treated, but it also explains how many of the barriers that hold us back from being assertive are rooted in the beliefs that we carry in our own heads.

Oh, and one last thing: don’t let the bastards get you down! This is something my husband says to me regularly. At first it didn’t make sense to me, and then I realized that it’s a choice. I have to allow others to treat me badly, to disrespect me at work, to devalue my ideas and cause me to feel bad about my opinions or viewpoint. It’s a choice that I make. Thus, remember that you have choices in every interaction and experience. Remember that it’s a choice to let others cause you to feel bad about yourself, or to feel as though your ideas don’t belong. Choose to ignore those people and to feel good about what you’re putting out into the world. And if all else fails: cupcake sandwich.

Want to be respected at work by your bosses and male co-workers? Here's some great tips and advice for women on how to be more assertive in the workplace.


Sarah Durnin
Sarah is a freelance writer, an avid adventurer, superhero admirer, and video game nerd. Born in Canada and bred in the Middle East, Sarah currently lives in California’s SF Bay Area, where the palm trees and epic sunsets keep her happy and content.
Sarah Durnin

Sarah Durnin

Sarah is a freelance writer, an avid adventurer, superhero admirer, and video game nerd. Born in Canada and bred in the Middle East, Sarah currently lives in California's SF Bay Area, where the palm trees and epic sunsets keep her happy and content.

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