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Four Fears That Keep Women Down: How to be More Assertive and Effective in the Workplace

Women can be their own worst enemies in the workplace. Very often, women are afraid to advocate for themselves, to speak up, negotiate, disagree, and promote themselves. Women often believe that the workplace is a meritocracy, and that their good work and good relationship skills will get them noticed and move them along.

Wrong. The workplace is many things, but a meritocracy is not always one of them. Sure, good work is usually rewarded, but good work in a vacuum is not. The people who get ahead are the people who speak up, negotiate, advocate, and promote themselves. And women tend to fear the very things that will help them get ahead.

Here’s how to combat the four big fears that keep women down:

1. Fear of assertive speech.

One of the biggest mistakes women make in the workplace is softening our speech. Speech has three components: the words we choose, our body language, and our tone of voice. And women fear being assertive in all three.

Women have a tendency to use what we call “weaker language.” For example, women tend to predicate what they say, as in: “I think this is a good idea,” or “I feel that is the right way to go,” or “We might want to consider this option.”

A more assertive speaker would say, “This is a good idea”; “This is the right way to go”; “This is what we need to do.” Assertive people do not predicate their language. Say what you mean, and don’t soften or qualify it.

That said, in some situations, using assertive language may not be the right way to go, and you may alienate people if you are too assertive. You need to be aware of your audience and judge the level and type of discourse. If it’s all assertive types, then be assertive. If you are dealing with less assertive people or the situation doesn’t warrant it, back off a little. 

There are times when predicates are absolutely appropriate, and you should soften your language, but if you soften everything people won’t see you as a leader. And no matter the audience or circumstance, being assertive does not mean being rude, condescending, strident, or shrill. It means being confident, commanding, and authoritative. Tone is very important.

One last thing: body language is big part of speech. So stand tall, sit up straight, and sit at the table or up front where you can be seen. Don’t slump, hide, or sit in the background. Be as assertive with your body language as you are with your speech.

2. Fear of negotiating. 

Across the board, women still lag behind men in salaries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women still earn just 79 percent of what their male counterparts do. Women consultants and lawyers tend to charge less than their male counterparts. Studies show that a $5,000 discrepancy in your first job can lead to a whopping $200,000 difference over the lifetime of your career.

Sadly, many women have a fear of negotiating. We just don’t do it as well as our male counterparts. Women feel guilty asking for money, and so we take what they offer us.

This needs to stop. We must stop being shy and learn to ask for it. Come in knowing what you are worth, knowing what your value is to the company, knowing what you have done and are capable of doing, and ask for the money. No one will do it for you.

Here’s a good article on negotiating from Susan Adams at Forbes.com:


3. Fear of conflict.

Women are very good at forging relationships. This is incredibly valuable at work, where relationship building is a key component of success. But too often we are reluctant to disagree or have conflict with our colleagues and coworkers. We are afraid to alienate people so we don’t stand up for ourselves or speak up. We are afraid of being perceived as a bitch if we aren’t friendly and easy going with everyone.

Conflict doesn’t have to be upsetting and disagreeing doesn’t have to be alienating, as long as you use respectful language and leave emotions out of it. You can be assertive without alienating people if you do it right.

Workplace relationships need to be strong, but they are not the same as your personal friendships. You aren’t at work to make friends. You have to find right the balance between being a person who helps create a harmonious workplace and being someone who is assertive and strong. You aren’t there to love and nurture everyone; you are there to work, work well with people, and get the job done. 

4. Fear of self-promotion.

Women believe that the workplace is a meritocracy. It is not. Good work is not all it takes. If you want to get ahead people have to know who you are, the work you have done, your value to the company, and what you are capable of doing. You have to do a little self-promotion. That’s what men do, and so should you.

Now self-promotion and shameless self-promotion are two different things. Do not mistake confidence for arrogance. There is a way to promote yourself and your accomplishments without being obnoxious. This is critical in meetings with your boss or manager; you have to be able to catalogue your accomplishments, ideas, and contributions.

If people don’t know about your successes and what you are capable of you will not get the opportunities. So start making a list of your accomplishments right now. Keep it updated and don’t be afraid to share it. Just don’t boast or brag.

Being assertive and strong are key to success. You have to learn to jettison your fears to get ahead. Good luck!

Click here to see my segment on Career Advice for Women featured on Let’s Talk Live! To see more videos, check out our Media Page here.


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