Is Being Assertive Too ‘Male’ for Women?

Do you think that running seminars in assertiveness is selling women short?

As a specialist in women’s development and someone who runs courses for women, and coaches women regularly, I obviously read a lot on my subject and try to keep myself as up to date with the research as much as I can.

I read something recently which pulled me up short and caused to take a serious look at what I do professionally. I’m quoting out of context but it’s the essence which is important. I was reading some research by a serious academic writing about communication styles and she said, in effect, that teaching women to be more assertive could be seen as teaching them to be more like men. And if you’ve read much of my work you’ll know this is emphatically what I don’t want to do, yet I do help women behave more assertively. Crikey!

So am I being hoist by my own petard here? It has caused me to seriously reflect on what I am actually doing when I work with women to feel more in control and to behave more assertively. Am I teaching them to behave like men or am I helping to increase their confidence in handling potentially difficult or fraught situations, and in dealing with men in the workplace?

A Short History of Assertiveness

I think it might help to define terms at this point.

Obviously assertive behaviour has been around since the year dot. In recent history the Civil Rights movement in the US in the 50s adopted many assertive principles when they respectfully and peacefully challenged the discrimination laws in the southern states.

The actual term assertiveness was probably coined somewhere around the nineteen sixties when psychologists began to study human behaviour in the same way that anthropologists had always studied animal behaviour. Books like ‘I’m OK, You’re OK’ were very popular, and different communication styles were looked at. This being the 60s I would agree the concept was very male centric as there was no serious challenge then to the notion that being male was the norm.

In the 70s the women’s movement took up the notion of assertiveness and used it as a means of growing in confidence to possibly play men at their own game. Movements like ‘Reclaim the Night’ sprung up when women were ‘taught’ to walk tall, not look like victims and have assertive body language. Late night walks were organised with the aim of dispelling victim fear among women.  I have no problems with being identified with that.

It’s in the 80s that I think it all went wrong. The eighties were generally a time of me me, greed is good etc and predictably courses in assertiveness followed the fashion. I had my first encounter with assertiveness training then, a full week’s residential course and I remember thinking, “well, if this is assertiveness, you can stuff it”.

It was awful, very much a case of  ‘I’ll win and you’ll lose.’  Is this a male way of thinking? The course leader was male, most of the writing was by guys, and most of the participants on my course were male. Research shows that when men talk amongst themselves it tends towards competitiveness. This way of looking at assertiveness was all about winning, competing. Much of what we had learned about good communication was also appropriated by sales trainers and used to establish a false rapport to sell more. I saw it more as a manipulative technique rather than a useful tool. Assertiveness got bad name during the eighties.

The next time I seriously began to think about the concept of assertiveness was a few years later when working with women in abusive situations. The issue boiled down to one of self respect: the personal issue, I mean. Obviously there is a whole raft of material and theories on why men abuse women which has little to do with women respecting themselves. I’m talking about the link between self respect and choice of partner here. These women had very little self esteem. Helping them to be more assertive in their daily lives increased their self esteem, their confidence, and consequently their ability to deal with the situations they were in. We did not work with them to behave like men.

Some years ago, shortly after setting up my own  business, I was asked at short notice if I could take over an assertiveness course within an organisation as the previous person had left suddenly. I agreed but was shocked by the course details presented to me. The previous tutor had been male, had actually been a car salesman in a previous life (nothing wrong with that, just filling in the background) and his course was firmly rooted in the 80s, you won or lost, according to how you played the game. Needless to say I designed my own programme, which incidentally was well received by both men and women.

Definition of Assertiveness

I think assertiveness is about respecting yourself, valuing what you bring to the table, and having the confidence to speak up. It’s not about being aggressive, or staying quiet and being passive or any combinations thereof. Essentially it is  about extending that level of respect to others. You have the right to say what you feel and believe honestly, and others have that that right too.

So on reflection, no, I don’t think what I do is about teaching women how to be like men. I think it’s about self respect, self esteem, and confidence and valuing self and others. And that doesn’t belong to any one gender, surely?


Posted on April 26th, 2011 by

2 Responses to “Is Being Assertive Too ‘Male’ for Women?”

  1. Ceri says:

    Jane, I couldn’t agree more with your definition- I believe to have self respect and the confidence to stand your own ground is essential. To be assertive you do not need to be aggressive- I too have been on courses where in being assertive we were encouraged to be aggressive- not a path I wished to go down!

    • Jane says:

      Thanks Ceri. I suspect it may be another area where men and women do it differently. Although in fairness, several men who had attended the first guy’s course came again to mine as they hadn’t found his approach helpful.

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