Bossy or Bold? Becoming an Assertive Woman in the Workplace


Much of my consulting and training work is in the New York City area, and one of the most frequently asked questions I receive from female clients is how to be assertive without being perceived negatively by other female and male colleagues. Even in a progress work environment like NYC financial services, females are told by managers that they sometimes are too bossy, or that they are too … well, the B word. If they are empathetic, they are told they are too indecisive or meek. It feels like a Catch 22. So, what to do?

This is a complex issue, and it’s made even harder because it’s somewhat out of the control of females in the workplace, even if they hit the perfect balance (whatever that is). In my view, a lot of perception of a female in the workplace (and a male) comes down to the energy or vibe that emanates from someone. Do they authentically seem to have the organization’s interest in mind or their own? Are they passionate because they are convicted or because they want to prove something? Do they listen just as well as they demand? At the end of the day, does their approach and perspective seem to be more concerned with themselves than with us? All of this seems to contribute to an overall assessment of someone’s character and communication style, and females would be wise to do a gut check about these issues before acting or speaking (just as males should).

Center for Talent Management CEO Sylvania Ann Hewlett surveyed business leaders and executives for her book Executive Presence, and she also found the following can help women to be assertive without appearing aggressive:

  • Women (and men) should speak from the lower pitch registers. Business leaders perceive a shrill or high pitch voice as insecure or uncertain.
  • The number one characteristic of a person with gravitas is staying calm under pressure. (In other words, take deep breaths, think before you speak, refuse to align with the anxiety of others, let others take the shot before you do.)
  • Avoid the “I” pronoun as much as possible and use “we” frequently.
  • Come from a position that it’s not about you but about the good of the organization.

With that said, we males must recognize how difficult this is for our female colleagues, and we owe them some self-awareness and emotional intelligence around these issues. Perhaps that means that we sometimes do not listen to our gut reaction and choose to  give the benefit of the doubt to females that may seem to us to be overly aggressive. Realizing the difficulty in hitting the right balance as a female, we males should be more understanding and generous in our interpretation more often.


For those females in the workplace who wish to read more on this issue, I offer these resources:

Knowing Your Worth: Women, Money and Getting What You’re Worth by Mika Brzenski

Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Forbes Article – If You Want to be the Boss, Don’t Act Like the Secretary

Hardball for Women
Pat Heim

Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office
Lois Frankel

Women Don’t Ask
Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever

Everything a Working Mother Needs to Know
Anne Weisberg

The Confidence Code
Katty Kay and Claire Shipman

Talking from 9 to 5: How Women’s and Men’s Conversation Styles Affect Who Gets Heard, Who Gets Credit and What Gets Done at Work
Deborah Tannen



One Response to “Bossy or Bold? Becoming an Assertive Woman in the Workplace”
  1. Susan says:

    As an assertive woman who did well in Corporate America ….. My view is that there is plenty of room for all types of approaches, as long as one is coming from a place of moving an organization forward. However….I did experience a particularly difficult 6 months when a 50+ senior executive white male wanted to get me canned because I did not show him the proper respect. Kudo’s to my boss, who played the game brilliantly by instead offering to get me an executive coach, because he felt I was “salvageable”. Six months later, after 10 wonderful sessions with a great woman coach, who assured me that it was NOT me, but gave me some tools to play the game, not only was I promoted …. BUT the senior executive was gone! She who laughs last! And get this… Those old dinosaurs are dying off! Give it 20 more years… And there will be NO one left whose mother did not work, AND who started working with only males. This issue will become a non- issue… And is already so much less than it used to be! Hallelujah… And I say go be Assertive!!!

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