You’re a grown-up woman with your own spacious desk, a couple of people reporting to you and a to-do list as long as your arm.
So why do you sometimes spend 10 minutes drafting an email to make sure the tone is friendly enough? And why do you find yourself saying “sorry” when your co-worker asks you to shuffle over at the office printer?
If these scenarios sound familiar, you might’ve fallen into a classic trap befalling some professional women: a mental tug-of-war between wanting to own your #girlboss power, and fear of coming off as "bossy."
There’s a good reason for this phenomenon. Anyone who’s read Lean In can tell you that when a woman behaves like her male counterparts in the workplace, she is often negatively labeled. “It is a complex dynamic because from an early age women are socialized to be 'nice' and to be a 'good girl.' Biologically, women thrive when being connected,” explains Stacey Radin, author of Brave Girls.
"Women and girls also seek consensus and approval and to be considered a bitch is something they fear," Radin continues. “Men on the other hand are socialized to take charge; they are not so worried about being liked and know that in their relationships with other men, the interaction is different. When men have a conflict they express themselves directly and then move on.”
We can’t solve the gender-double standards in one article, sorry. But we can provide a practical guide to owning your power, without being downright mean. Here we go:
Aim for assertiveness, not aggression
If you’ve spent your whole working life deferring to others or trying hard to be “nice,” finding the line between assertive and aggressive can be tricky.
Perhaps that’s why you’re obsessing over that feedback you gave to your intern last week. Or wondering if it’s fair to ask for a day off after working three weekends in a row.
Here’s a quick guide to telling the difference between the two styles: Being aggressive violates the rights of others by attacking them, while being assertive is expressing your feelings or opinions in an open manner that doesn’t violate the rights of others.
“Embracing real power or being assertive is when you feel what you have to say is necessary; that not saying something could have consequences or if you feel your opinion would have value or you are trying to facilitate a dialogue about an issue,” says Radin.
To become a master of assertion, practice expressing your views while keeping your voice calm and your posture relaxed—and remember to make eye contact.
Stop saying sorry.
We’ve said it before but we’ll say it again: You do not need to apologize when stating your opinion, standing up for somebody, or disagreeing.
Apologizing for these things comes off as a lack of confidence or passiveness—and same goes for other “softening” phrases such as “no worries,” “awesome,” “maybe,” “I’m wondering if,” and “I feel like.” (Not to mention overuse of emojis and exclamation marks in an attempt to seem easygoing.)
Farrah Penn over at BuzzFeed calls this “woman in a meeting” language: words we professional women often use to prevent coming off as abrasive.
This communication style undermines your authority, so cut it out.
Women have a hard time saying no—but putting boundaries in place is a critical, necessary skill to have, Radin says.
She suggests it may be appropriate to push back: "If the work asked to do is not your typical job; if you feel you are not equipped to manage what’s being asked or you are feeling as if your boss is taking advantage of you."
When one of these situations occurs, Radin suggests approaching your supervisor, asking her for clarity about the project and the timeline.
"If you do feel overworked, you need to share that versus sitting with it and allowing it to fester; that will only lead to more anger and passive aggressive type behaviors," Radin adds. “Open communication is important.”
And if you struggle to say no to requests from colleagues or direct reports, practice makes perfect. Literally—practice it. It's nothing personal, just business.
Marianna Olszewski, author of Live it, Love it, Earn it, says she performs an exercise in her coaching workshops that involves going through a list of requests and questions—such as “Can you read this report for me?”—and having the participants reply ‘no’, without apology or explanation.
“Have a buddy ask you each question. Reply ‘no’ after each question,” she suggests. “The first few times, saying 'no' might make you feel very uncomfortable. You may have to do this exercise several times before saying no loses its hold on you."
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