Bossy bias: why are female leaders viewed as aggressive?

Assertiveness is considered a core communication skill in the workplace. It enables individuals to express their opinions while respecting other perspectives. It can lead to improved confidence, efficient collaboration and increased respect for management teams. Additionally, it can help generate new opportunities, such as promotions, as assertiveness is a key characteristic of a successful leader.

But for women, assertiveness can be perceived not as a marker of success but rather aggression.

Women who are assertive in the workplace often face backlash from their colleagues. A research synthesis of 71 studies found that female leaders are belittled more than their male counterparts for assertive behaviour. This research also showed that coworkers particularly criticize women for direct verbal forms of assertiveness. Instead of being viewed as assertive, employees perceive female leaders as aggressive or bossy. However, when a man exhibits the same behaviour, colleagues view this as direct.

Subeda Sheekhnur, a Toronto-based HR professional, has seen this resistance to women being assertive in her previous workplaces. She explained that many female leaders were perceived negatively by their subordinates. Despite the female leaders always fulfilling deadlines and making reasonable requests, their teams often belittled them. Sometimes this belittlement would escalate to bullying and harassment, with female leaders being called derogatory names.

Sheekhnur often found that this behaviour came from male subordinates. There is research that supports her observations. One study found that male employees are more likely to leave their position when female bosses are appointed.

Sheekhnur elaborated that workplaces characterize female leaders as mean or aggressive when trying to direct their teams. However, employees view men in leadership roles who purposely behave aggressively as “bosses.”

“A woman will just be trying to tell her team what to do and hold them accountable, but they’ll end up being called names and insulted,” she explained. “Or they’re ignored, and the work doesn’t end up being done.”

There could be negative effects if a team isn’t completing their work because they don’t respect their female leader. Research has found that leaders often attribute women failing to achieve professional goals to a lack of self-confidence. If a female leader isn’t meeting company goals, executives may believe she lacks the confidence for any further promotions.

Sheekhnur said she believes it is essential for leadership teams to implement a workplace culture that empowers women to be assertive. Her current workplace provides training segments focused on promoting diversity and inclusion. Additionally, they incorporate these beliefs in their hiring processes and have an even number of male and female executives. When she compares this role to her previous jobs, she can see the transformative power of inclusive workplace cultures.

“There are differences between workplaces that have meaningful conversations and those that don’t,” Sheekhnur said. “I think that’s why women are more comfortable here being assertive because they’re empowered to take on new challenges, new roles and new projects.”

She explained that her work also provides learning and training programs. She said these programs allow employees to gain more knowledge and skills. Her work also has employee resource groups (ERGs). ERGs are employee-led groups that aim to cultivate a diverse, inclusive workplace. They provide support and career development opportunities to participants. Sheekhnur also views ERGs as an outlet for employees to share experiences. She finds that sharing perspectives can help individuals deal with harassment, discrimination and bullying.

Sheekhnur said she believes that providing women with knowledge, skills and a supportive network can make them comfortable asserting themselves. Additionally, she said it’s crucial that company leaders actively enforce diversity and inclusion policies.

“I think for diversity and inclusion to be real in the workplace, every executive and department head needs to be practicing these beliefs,” she said. “Not just talking about them, but actually believing and implementing them.”

Sheekhnur said that workplaces like hers are helping to transform workplace culture into an inclusive space. She is excited that she can contribute to a culture that empowers women to shatter the glass ceiling. She also said she hopes it signals a change in the professional landscape that motivates women to be assertive and manage projects, teams, organizations, countries — anything.

“It’s like Beyonce said: who run the world?” laughed Sheekhnur. “Girls, that’s who!”

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