Is She Aggressive Or Just Assertive? The Sexist Standards Women In Leadership Face

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To completely bring down the glass ceiling, what do we need if not more assertive women in leadership roles today? Women who know exactly what it takes for an enterprise to grow, what the value of hard work is, and what they themselves deserve. But it appears society, still unsettled with the concept of a strong-headed woman, finds ways to tell them their gender is a barrier.

The question is are women rebelling against such mindsets – in offices, in politics, in other leadership? Is a female boss to be called bossy? Why, when it comes to men in leadership, is society more accommodating with characteristics that spell a determined, motivated, resolute person? And why, when women exhibit similar demeanour, do those very qualities become a disadvantage?

Should workplaces and households be afraid of women who know their own minds?

The social idea that women who take the lead are unlikeable isn’t just a theory but, unfortunately, a well-studied fact. The 2016 paper The subtle suspension of backlash famously outlines the “penalties” on women “when they display dominance.” Women’s dominance affecting their likeability thereby also impacts factors such as employability, the paper argues.

A viral tweet neatly stacks the paper and a famous cartoon by Australian artist Judy Horacek side by side in a vivid display of the double standards patriarchy is still doling out for women in 2021.

The judgment is exponentially higher when women in leadership or public spaces are at an intersection. Social activist Angellica Aribam in an interview with SheThePeople spotlighting her experiences said, “I’ve learnt to live with it… It’s rather unfortunate that I’m targeted because I am a woman and an ethnic minority… The abuses that come my way are more layered. It happens not just in India but across the world where women politicians are presented in a paternalistic way… Even media’s perception of women politicians is more about their attire.”

And oftentimes, if women to get ahead have to assume authoritative stances to be valued, are they really to blame? This isn’t restricted to just politics but crosses over into industries of art and entertainment as well.

“Even on film crews and often when women are in positions of authority, they replicate a certain kind of authority,” Konkona Sensharma tells us. “The way we perceive authority is a very stereotypically “masculine” image… Many times I’ve seen female assistant directors take on aggressive kinds of roles because that is how they are taken seriously.”

More Assertive Women In Leadership Please!

Such is the conditioning in our society that oppresses and limits their capabilities that women are raised with the consciousness that certain behaviours are out-of-bounds for them. Being career-driven, aspiring for more, opinionated, working without pause, pushing for growth – these are attributes considered far too ‘masculine’ to be accessible to women expected to be submissive, bent over to authority and people-pleasing.

Lawyer and Dalit activist Kiruba Munusamy made a pertinent, poignant point when she recalled in an interview with us how women in politics in Tamil Nadu cannot ditch the saree for even salwar-kameez because they need to be “likeable… She needs to express herself as a homely woman and she needs to compete with a man who is already accepted by society…”

‘She’s so loud.’ ‘She’s rude.’ ‘She’s bitchy.’ ‘Her tone’s not right.’ ‘Can’t she speak like a lady?’ ‘Her brashness will get her nowhere.’ All this and more is what women in the boss’ seat have to hear when they break the mould.

A man with these traits is hailed as a powerhouse of leadership, a man with a plan, a man who will take his team along. Why then are we uncomfortable with women in positions of seniority asserting authority as they are thus entitled or required to? Should standards of likeability be segregated per gender?

What makes a woman unlikeable? Independence? Intellect? Agency over her own life?

There is no justification for what constitutes bad behaviour, but that particular stipulation applies across genders. So if what we perceive as aggression is undesirable, then men too must be penalised for it. And if assertiveness brings profitable value, then women realising their worth mustn’t be judged for being the badasses they are.

Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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