manager woman is leading the meeting

Assertive vs Aggressive: 5 Tips for Women Walking the Tightrope

The one question that I get asked the most as a women’s leadership coach is how to walk the tightrope and find balance between being aggressive and assertive in the workplace. This also happens to be one of the main themes in my book, Leading Gracefully, which presents a whole new roadmap on how women can achieve that sometimes elusive balance.

hardcover of book leading gracefully

One of the biggest challenges women face is something called the “double bind” which are the confusing messages they get about how to behave in a work environment. Women are told they need to be assertive, but not too much, otherwise they might be seen as a “bitch” or “difficult to work with” or an “Ice Queen.” However, if they are too accommodating, then they might get labeled as the “Nice girl.” Each of these polarities make up two ends of the Leadership Tightrope and both sides of this spectrum have pitfalls and force women to choose between being respected versus being liked, which ends up being a zero sum game.

The Nice Girl vs The Ice Queen

What happens when you get labeled as the nice girl? Sure, people may like you because they know you’ll be responsible, take care of all the office housework and not mess up their Starbucks order, but when it comes time to assign challenging projects or take on more responsibility, you’re most likely not going to be top of mind for people. On the flip side, when we’re on the other end of the Tightrope, people may not necessarily like working for you or with you because you might come off as cold and unemotional. Sure you are respected, but what happens when there’s a fire? Will you hear about it? Most likely not, because people are most likely intimidated by you and could be afraid of an aggressive reaction. There are trade offs on either side of this Leadership Tightrope and they are both bad for women’s advancement. And this is one of the main reasons we continue to see a leadership gap in organizations today because it seems as if women are damned either way, so they either check out, opt out of their careers, or worse yet, burn out from having to constantly manage their image and perception.

assertive ice queen at office

So it’s really easy to give up and say, “well there’s not really much I can do and men need to change the way they stereotype women.” My answer to that is – yes and no. Do men need to check their gender bias at the door? Absolutely? Do organizations need to make sure men have the tools to do so? Yes. However, women can also work on their effectiveness by finding balance between being the Ice Queen or the Nice Girl through practicing Feminine Leadership. When practicing feminine leadership, women are able to take back control of their impact through building self-awareness and leaning into the strengths they bring to the table. 

Defining Assertiveness

Let me start my defining assertiveness. Being assertive means being able to clearly and confidently communicate your ideas, influence others, and contribute fully. It means being direct, being able to make decisions and having the courage to speak up when you don’t agree or have a strong opinion about something. Now the way we do this can be the difference between being assertive and being too aggressive. The tone of voice we use as well as our body language and facial expressions make up about 80% of what people perceive of us. To be able to be assertive means our body language is aligned with our thoughts and we are able to articulate them with confidence and ease. This means we feel calm and centered in our body. It means that our body language is open and receptive. We are able to listen deeply and acknowledge others. We allow others to express their opinions and give others credit for their input.

boss woman at workplace

How does this differ from being aggressive? When we are aggressive, we tend to leave our emotions at the door. There isn’t much empathy or kindness in the way we speak, we might be rude or indifferent and our body language might be more closed rather than open and receptive. We might roll our eyes or cross our arms for example. We might not listen well to others or rudely interrupt. We might be demanding and not really give people the credit they deserve. Although you are direct and vocal, the tone of voice you use and the energy behind it is very different. It is much more controlling and dominating and makes people feel intimidated, afraid and uncomfortable.

Here are five steps you can take to be more assertive and less aggressive:

1. What is my current impact?

Self-awareness is the key to personal and professional development, so we start there. Most of the time, we don’t have any clue about how we are showing up and how others perceive us. Depending on your level, you may or may not be getting feedback about your performance or leadership style. So it’s imperative that you develop self-awareness and ask yourself, what is the impact I am having on the people on my team, on my peers, direct reports, or others I interact with on a daily basis. Begin noticing how people react to you and whether you are creating a healthy or toxic environment around you through your actions and behavior. Are you a team player and get along well with the majority of your team or do you complain and act a victim? Are you able to communicate your ideas well or are you more emotional and volatile? How do you handle stress? Begin noticing your impact and be honest with yourself. If you don’t like what you see, that’s okay. You can’t change what you don’t see, so this is the first step in choosing behaviors that bring you to the desired impact you want to have.

be self-aware

2. What is my desired impact?

Once you’ve given yourself an honest assessment (or taken a 360 Leadership Assessment), you can ask yourself – What is the desired impact I want to have? Do you want to be more collaborative with others? Do you want to build more trust with your peers? Do you want to improve a relationship with someone you work with? Do you want to be a more assertive and less aggressive woman? Write down the types of impact you want to have on the various groups of people you work with (peers, direct reports, manager, customers etc). This will give you a goal or objective to work towards and you can then work backwards to figure out what qualities you need to develop in order to get to your desired impact.

3. Practice Centering

At the center of the Feminine Leadership model is the quality of Centering. If you’re wondering what that is, think about how you feel after a yoga or meditation class. You probably feel more grounded, present, calm and relaxed. That is what we mean by Centering. Most of the time we are in some kind of stress response during the work day. We have to run from one meeting to the next, constantly put out fires and handle many demands. All of these put stress on the body which significantly reduces our ability to think clearly. When we are in a stress response we might respond more emotionally or aggressively. However, we can quickly get out of that stress response by practicing a Centering exercise (there’s a great one I recommend in my book), or you can find an easy practice that you enjoy like deep breathing exercises or going for a quick walk around the block or listening to relaxing music. Find a practice that works for you and do that before you respond to an email, resolve a conflict or walk into an important meeting or presentation. 

4. Choose a leadership capacity(s) to develop.

Once you’ve Centered, you can then ask yourself – what leadership quality do I need to use in this given situation so I can have my desired impact? You can then refer to the Feminine Leadership Model to ask yourself what qualities will help you get to your desired impact. If you tend to be more aggressive in your leadership style, perhaps you need to practice more empathy and humility in order to achieve your desired impact. If you tend to be more shy and withdrawn, then perhaps you need to be more direct and become assertive in how you communicate your ideas and opinions. Pick one or two leadership qualities from the model that you think will help you balance out your impact and commit to working on those for the next few months. Use the specific exercises outlined in my book to help you do so or book coaching sessions with me directly if you want further support.

woman in balance and calm mood

5. Ask for feedback.

A great way to know whether you’re on the right track is to tell people you work with that you are working on a specific leadership quality. This will help you stay accountable and get feedback on your progress. Not only will you be acting as a role model for self-development, but you’ll also be getting valuable feedback on the changes you’re trying to implement in your leadership style. This insight can be pivotal to your success when you’re working on behavior change because it gives you the positive reinforcement to keep going and also helps you gauge if you’re on track to achieve your desired impact.

one to one meeting at office

You Are Always at Choice

One of the most valuable things you can discover is that you are always at choice at how you show up, whether you lead others or just lead yourself. Whether you’re a manager, an entrepreneur or a mom, you can practice these leadership skills to better manage yourself and others with more ease, grace and effectiveness. Sometimes all it takes is the willingness to look at ourselves honestly in the mirror and ask ourselves some tough questions. But in the end, doing the work to improve your effectiveness can mean the difference between staying stagnant in your career or moving upwards, making more money, and being more successful in your endeavors. For women to move up the ladder and close the gender gap, we must learn how to assertively and confidently communicate, offer our opinions, and contribute our gifts fully. I hope these steps will help you not only be liked but also respected by the people you work with and relate to.

man and woman standing hands rose up

Power, Privilege and the Last Gasps of Patriarchy

Nearly thirty years after the Anita Hill hearings, the nation and the world experienced collective de ja vu. What was supposed to be a shoe-in for a position on the highest court in the land of the free, quickly became a showcase of what the last gasps of patriarchy look like in this country. Acting angry, blameful, entitled we watched career politicians, many of whom are old enough to remember the Anita Hill hearings, deciding they didn’t give a damn about women, women’s rights, or the respect of women. They stubbornly defended their nominee, someone who has been accused of attempted rape, who himself showed no emotional self-control throughout his rageful testimony on Capitol Hill.

As I listened to these men, I kept thinking – what if they were woman? What if a woman sat in a chair and started yelling, pointing fingers, blaming and acting defensively? She would most certainly be called a liar, too emotional, a bitch, or self-serving. The double standards as it relates to gender and privilege, and in this case, white male privilege, was so obvious, most women just rolled their eyes and sighed. So typical.

Thirty years after the Anita Hill hearings, we must ask ourselves difficult questions. How far have we come as women, really? What have we achieved, really? And in the age of #metoo and #timesup, how will be navigate the newly birthed #himtoo movement barreling toward us like a tsunami gaining steam every time a sexual assaulter is elected to high office? Many of us have been watching and patiently waiting for the day when double standards no longer define our ability to be viewed as equals. At the rate we’re going, we might be waiting awhile.

We are standing in a pivotal turning point in the history of our nation. We are also standing in a pivotal moment for the feminist movement. There is a palpable sense that our relationship to power, privilege and patriarchy is shifting, We know in our hearts and in our bones that the traditional systems indoctrinated by our political, economic, societal and even religious institutions are no longer sound. They no longer serve us in a world that is increasingly interconnected, interdependent and under environmental attack. As men rise up to play the victim, to cry and act as if they are the assaulted instead of the assaulter, how will we as women react? Will we reclaim our true power and our voice to stand firmly in sisterhood and say enough is enough? Or will be meet rage with even more rage?

During this process, we also heard from Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who embodied for all of us what it means to reclaim her voice and speak truth to power. By owning her vulnerability and leaning into it as a strength, she showed us what is possible when we step into our true feminine power. Her poise, grace and clarity came through and most everyone who heard her thought she was credible and honest. She did not need to raise her voice, express anger, or play the victim to get her point across. She was rooted and grounded even in moments of weakness and grief.

As women, we have so much to be angry about. And we should continue to be angry when we need to be (as this moment warrants).

But what we also need to do is own our feminine power.

This type of power does not need to control others, dominate or obfuscate.

This power empowers others.

And by coming forward, Dr. Ford empowered a new generation of women who will learn how to reclaim their own voice and power in a new way.

We are quickly moving out of old, outdated models of leadership and power that seek to have power over or take power away from others and we are moving into ways of being that allow us to use it in a way that empowers others. We can apply this idea in all walks of our life, from the boardroom to the courtroom. And because I believe this power is innately wired in women, I think we are poised to lead the way, as Dr. Ford did. And that is the true silver lining in all of this.

The day will come when gender stereotypes and gender bias no longer define our ability to succeed. But first, we have to be the ones to break free from its chains.

strong woman

No Girls @ the Drawing Board Part I

Women in tech or the lack thereof, is an issue that extends far beyond the reach of the people who work in the tech field. Technology has become such a huge part of our daily life that the influence of its designers bleeds over into the norms of our society. The discouragingly small amount of women designing software and apps isn’t just a bummer, it’s an indication of the value placed on women’s issues and women’s needs.

When Apple first unveiled their Health application, we were amazed at how much it could tell us about our vital signs. It allowed us to track calories, weight, steps, heart rate, respiratory rates and even  more serious items like BAC and electrodermal activity. It was convenient, it was beautiful, and it was missing one BIG thing: a period tracker. Apple Health could tell us virtually everything we needed to know about ourselves – unless we happen to be women, in which case one of the fundamental parts of feminine health was conspicuously left out. In June of 2014, in conjunction with the announcement of Apple Health, the Senior VP of Software Engineering at Apple, Craig Federighi, confidently announced that Health would let users “monitor all of [the] metrics you’re most interested in.” Periods must not have been very interesting to him.

FitBit, on the other hand, did remember to include a period-tracker. Unfortunately, it was similarly out-of-touch. The tracker only allowed users to track their periods for a limited time; attempts to track beyond that were met with the message, “Periods should be between one and ten days.” The options to respond were “okay” and “cancel.” This glaring design flaw is obvious to any woman who has suffered from irregular periods or endometriosis, amongst other reproductive health issues. It begs the question, how many women were involved with designing this feature? If FitBit is true to form for the current tech landscape, the answer is few to none. Today, only 29% of leadership at Apple is female, along with 28 percent at Facebook, and 25 percent at Google. The numbers are slightly higher if you analyze the breakdown of all employees, rather than just leadership, but Pinterest is the only tech company with significantly higher numbers (19 percent of leadership and 45 percent of total employees). This is largely because of a huge effort made by the company in the last year, spearheaded by Candace Morgan and her D&I team.

The lack of women in tech not only leads to products that don’t cater to women’s needs, but they also fall into disappointingly cliche stereotypes about “girliness,” strengthening gender stereotypes. For example, the layouts and color-schemes of some period apps tend to be skewed toward pinks and florals, reaffirming antiquated assumptions about those colors belonging to a specific gender. One of the most popular period-tracking apps, incidentally, is designed by a woman. It’s called Clue and its not pink.

So what do apps designed for women by women actually look like? Here are a few of my favorites:

Spitfire: Built by two female engineers (awesome) who are also competitive athletes (WOW), Spitfire is an app designed to help women take their strength training to the next level by giving them access to the regimens of other competitive athletes. One user, Tatenda M., summed up the app perfectly in her review posted on Spitfire’s website, “ It’s the only weightlifting app that is truly by women for women. It was designed, coded, researched, marketed by tech ladies who lift heavy things and kick ass at both.”

Clue: A period tracker for women, by women. Ida Tin, CEO and co-founder of Clue wanted to feel more in control of her body and its functions, and the app’s clean, no-frills design shows that. “I didn’t want it to be your secret diary… I wanted it to be a very straight, natural part of life”, she says. The app has over seven thousand beaming reviews and boasts a 4.7 star rating.

Canva: Designed by Australian Melanie Perkins, Canva is an editing and designing tool that you’ve probably seen in action before – on my #MotivationalMonday quotes! The app is incredibly user-friendly and, while it may not be designed specifically for women, it has helped me share lots of  content with my social media circles. As a Women’s Leadership and Inclusion expert, being able to share my knowledge and experience in a beautiful way is extremely valuable to reaching my ultimate goal of encouraging and empowering all women.

Honorable mention goes to the team of girls who recently developed an incredible app in a Saudi Arabian hackathon. The hackathon was organized with the goal of producing apps that will help travelers who are participating in the Islamic Pilgrimage known as Hajj. The app allows users to instantly translate signage using the camera on their phone, without the need for an internet connection. The app alone is amazing and has the capacity to change travel as we know it, but in a country notorious for its exclusion of women from making public impacts, its creation is certainly a double victory. “We managed to destroy the impossible and prove that Saudi women can achieve anything,” said developer Bayan al-Ghamdi.

It makes all the sense in the world that apps made by women are better for women. Years of research and development went into creating so many of the applications we now use on a daily basis. Men and women can and should come together to work in tandem to produce amazing and innovative technology. But before that can ever happen, we need more women working in front of the drawing board.

young women

I’m a Millennial female about to enter the workforce. Here’s why I’m concerned.

God-willing, I am graduating from college this year.

Myself, and all of the other women who will graduate from college this spring are currently faced with a very different image of the working world than our mothers. We’ve witnessed the birth of movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, and expect that the age of Mad Men-esque gender dynamics are over.

I know that many companies are rushing to build entire teams devoted to improving their gender demographics. Girls are more in demand than ever, in fields like computer science and engineering. Human Resources may be the birthplace of Diversity and Inclusion initiatives, but it is no longer the only department in which women can break glass ceilings.

The degrees that I will be receiving certainly lend themselves to a career in Diversity and Inclusion, a quickly growing field, but despite being constantly reassured that the bounty of opportunities is ripe for the taking, I still don’t see much in the way of possibilities beyond entry and mid-level positions. My classmates and I are often disappointed when evaluating potential employers because we don’t see ourselves progressing long-term, as evidenced by the stark lack of women in upper management. Statisticians who have analyzed the issue have coined the term ‘leaky pipeline’ to describe the mountain of obstacles women face, starting during the time they are being educated and persisting through their ascents to upper management. Women slip through cracks because of discrimination, inflexible workplaces, and pay disparity. The leaky pipeline is a vicious circle; it’s what causes women to leave their careers before reaching their full potential, resulting in a lack of representation in higher positions.

All of this makes it extremely difficult to find female mentors. While there are a number of women who have made names for themselves in tech, for them the journey to the C-suite was not an easy one. In all likelihood, the last 20+ years of their life may have been devoted to fighting their way up the ladder, battling misogyny, chauvinism, and a constant shadow of doubt cast over their competence. When they were starting out, there were no diversity initiatives. Today, companies like Pinterest are flaunting their diversity goals to increase the number of women on staff to make it more appealing for someone like me entering the workforce.

However, I’ve also been hearing stories about women who have made it but are usually the ones who become Ice Queens that Monique has talked about at great length in her book Leading Gracefully and in last week’s blog. It sounds like these negative feelings make some women especially reluctant to offer mentorship or even encouragement to the younger generation of women who are just starting out.

When I asked a friend who entered the workforce a year ago what her experience has been, she shared how she was given the opportunity to work with the CEO of an all-female company that did not go as planned. The woman who she expected to be mentored by ended up treating her as a personal assistant instead, going so far as to ask her to pick her kids up from school. She told me matter-of-factly, “Guys don’t get asked to do that.” We walked down the sidewalks of San Francisco in silence for some time as I tried to digest the weight of her words. She would tell me later that the same thing happened to her roommate.

In spite of saddening stories like these, I am looking towards the future with optimism and excitement. Working with Monique as an intern at Highest Path has shown me that there are successful women who are eager to walk the walk and bend over backwards to give young women like myself the opportunities to learn and grow in a positive environment. What the working world needs now are more successful women who understand the valuable role that they play in patching up the leaky pipeline and establishing new precedents for the generations of successful women yet to come.

men of quality respect womens equality

Celebrating Male Allies Fighting for Gender Equality

The tech industry is rallying around gender diversity and women aren’t the only ones excited about it.

It’s easy to forget that men have mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters who all play important roles in their lives and careers. In a recent article on Entrepreneur.com, Toby Southgate (CEO, Brand Union) challenged the false conclusion that men are indifferent to the suffering of professional women by directly citing his daughter’s bravery as his inspiration for championing women’s rights. He reminds male leaders that they have two ears and one mouth, and that they “should use them in that proportion.” Men in leadership positions benefit from pulling up a chair and listening to the state of affairs for women before they start making plans to enact change in their own workplaces.

Another leader who is inspired by the strong women in his family is Kfir Gavrieli, CEO of Tieks. Gavrieli has long been an ardent supporter of women in the workplace, and has consistently put his money where his mouth is. His sister, Dikla, is the president of the company, and under her leadership, Tieks has committed over $2.5 million dollars to Kiva, which loans money to women entrepreneurs who don’t have access to traditional banking systems. “We believe these women are a key in the broader fight against global poverty,” Gavrieli says, “and that there is no better way to have impact than to support the ingenuity and efforts of these women.”

Nicholas Ferroni, a Huffington Post blogger and high school teacher was namedone of 2016’s 100 Most Influential people for his tireless work in education, specifically towards the advancement of young women and girls. He currently advises his high school’s “Feminist Club” and recently posted on Twitter, “Male teachers are in an amazing position to be role models for the boys and to set a very high standard for the girls.” Amen to that!

In my book Leading Gracefully, I directly address the importance of engaging men as allies if we want to close the gender gap in organizations. Men still hold about 95% of CEO positions in Fortune 500 companies, so it goes without saying that they play an integral role in women’s advancement. If we want to see transformative change in the leadership and gender pay gap, we need men as allies, advocates, and partners. It’s easy to focus on the bad actors we hear about in the media and to paint all men with broad brushstrokes, but it’s important to remember that there are many male executives that understand the importance of women in leadership and are actively working to promote them.

My personal belief is that we must engage with our male allies in constructive ways if we are to move past gender bias, sexism, and discrimination. To achieve that goal, we need comprehensive culture change initiatives that bring awareness to things like unconscious gender bias, inclusive leadership and how to support women’s advancement. Also, engaging in respectful conversation and dialogue on these subjects can be a great way to invite men into the conversation in settings like women’s conferences and forums. But the first step is role modeling bold leadership by courageous male allies in vocalizing their support for investing in women! And that’s something we can all be encouraged by!