Women Leadership: Aggressive or Assertive?


It was an uplifting day for one of my close friends, she was in charge of a new marketing project and was excited and eager to share its goals with her team. The meeting ended very well. She was later approached by one of the male executives on the panel who had given her feedback that she was aggressive. He recommended that she should be less aggressive during the next meeting. Her confidence and spirit trembled.

What does that mean she asked herself? Does less aggressive mean to tackle their mission but soften the blow? Or did she have to adjust her delivery in order to pursue her passion less forcefully?


Women Leaders Being Referred to as Aggressive

I believe that many effective women leaders are confused when this type of feedback is given. Throughout a woman’s career there is a time when they will be labeled as coming across aggressive. Growing up, I was surrounded by assertive women who I view as incredible role models due to the self-confidence they exhibited.  But as time went by, I started to notice more and more people refer to women in leadership roles as “aggressive” when they shared their passions or commanded a room.


Definition of Aggressive

Let’s look into the definition of the word “aggressive”. According to the Cambridge Dictionary it states, “behaving in an angry and violent way towards another person.” And further, as “the practice of making attacks or encroachments”

When a woman speaks their mind in an assertive way, they are likely to be labeled as aggressive. The question to be asked though is: are these women confronting and attacking their colleagues or are they being effective leaders that show their power and confidence?

This topic is perplexing. It is hard to imagine leading a team without being assertive at times.


Double Standards in the Workplace

The idea of a double standard is present. An article published in the Harvard Business Review, looked at 200 performance reviews within one company, it showed that the reviews for women had vague praise more often than reviews for men (57% and 43% respectively). Furthermore, the communication style of the women received most of the negative feedback. Comments such as “her speaking style and approach can be off-putting to some people at times”. This feedback was frequently stated. In fact, 76% of references to being “too aggressive” happened in women’s reviews versus 24% in men.

There is a bigger picture to this discussion though. Not only can you be labelled as aggressive in casual discussion, but it also appears in performance reviews, that can lead to a major impact on career advancement.


Lead with Your Heart and Stay Confident

When communicating with colleagues or during a performance review, one must choose their words carefully. Having ambition and speaking with authority should not be considered aggressive acts.

One must be very sensitive to the words used when giving feedback in the workplace and when describing performance. Assertive behaviour consists of standing up for yourself, being confident and providing value to your organization.  It is important to reflect on the way we communicate to ensure we’re not placing sexist standards on women in power. We need to stop using unfair language to assess and describe their actions.

A women leader must remain self-confident and trust their leadership skills to be an effective leader. At the YWCA we know that leadership comes in all shapes and sizes and you do not have to be on the top of the organizational chart to create change and be a genuine leader. We feel it is important to celebrate and promote women in leadership positions. Get inspired and learn more with many other amazing women in our community at our 7th annual Niagara Leadership Summit for Women!


Written By: Rita Stranges