The internal female fight: Enforcing assertiveness

Time and time again I’ve heard that women are at an inherent disadvantage in the workplace and have to deal with higher social expectations than their male counterparts, because, well, society has always been sexist. Growing up in a progressive and diverse part of the Bay Area, I was also shown by my strong female role models that women are equally capable of having independence, becoming successful in their careers and providing for a family all at the same time.  And I’ve always expected no less from my future self. Despite this positive upbringing and having experienced only a handful of instances of overt sexism first-hand over my lifetime, I’ve realized that elements of my mentality as a woman have still held me back from achieving my true potential.

Sitting around the dining table last weekend, I had an extensive conversation about female empowerment in the workplace with my aunt, an executive director at Lenovo and an active participant in the company’s women’s leadership program led by Talking with her and reflecting on the differences between my male friends’ and my temperament helped me come to a bit of a realization: Yes, women face undeniable external pressures and challenges in their daily lives, but how much of the female struggle is also in the way we think about ourselves and our needs?

What do I mean by this? I’ll say it bluntly — I think men are entitled. Hear me out, I don’t think entitlement is bad. In fact, to a certain extent, it is necessary for the kind of economic and social success many of us strive for. Generally speaking, as I’ve paid attention to the male and female dynamics in my own life and the world around me, I’ve noticed that the majority of women I know lack this entitlement to speak as freely as men do and definitely do not have the expectation that others would cooperate with their needs. 

In the school environment, for example, as someone who’s always been fairly confident, it’s surprising to me that I still really don’t feel comfortable talking to my teachers. I was in shock when I saw one of my closest male friends ask our teacher for accommodations to turn in all his late-work at once. While I plan out my afternoons from hour to hour to try to finish all my work on time, my friend chooses to simply not, and still find ways to make it work for him. 

It wasn’t the concept of turning in late-work that baffled me — I turn in assignments late too — but it was the security with expecting the teacher to be understanding. I know, I know, duh, Emilie, teachers are there to help, but I know I’m not alone in being uncomfortable with having to ask for accommodations, simply because I don’t expect others will do so for me. While initially frustrating, I came to realize my friend was in the right, because in reality, this ability to simply ask for what would benefit him is only going to help him in life, and it’s taken a great deal of introspection to figure out that I should be able to do the same. The world really is for the takers.

After I told this story to my aunt and mom, they brought up the female subconscious self-doubt they’ve observed in themselves and the women around them that adds an immense amount of difficulty for women on top of external prejudices. 

This idea, the seven hurdles women leaders face, from Linkage, was introduced by Women Leaders Managing Director Susan Brady and touches on this exact kind of self-doubt that I’d been pondering. It highlights the fact that women, by nature, have to go the extra mile to feel self-aware and confident. While these two traits are ones I’ve always felt were my strongest, I’ve come to realize that next to the males around me, that confidence is incomparable. We are just as intelligent, strong and capable, yet being able to convey our thoughts and needs to others with the appropriate amount of confidence does not come as naturally.

This has been a concept truly difficult for me to process because any time I act assertively (which is quite frequently), I’m immediately overcome with insecurity in thinking others will think I’m annoying, too bossy or serious. Here’s my takeaway: Screw that. The kind of successful women I look up to have to be this way. And successful men already are this way. 

There is no immediate change that can be made for all women to suddenly start thinking like men. Even saying that sounds silly, but I strongly encourage women to do some self-reflection and think about the tendency to suppress our needs and make accommodations for others rather than ourselves. It isn’t necessarily out of fear or being a pushover, but we don’t even consider what we deserve from others. 

To all women: Please, let’s stand up for ourselves. Not because others are always pushing you down, but because the way you stand for yourself is the way others will think to treat you. We will only ever get as much as we ask for, and too many of us don’t even realize just how much we can ask for.