The $15K Price Women Pay for Being Too Assertive at Work

Jennifer Liu

angry-at-workWho earns less money: Debbie Downer or Negative Ned?

It may sound like a question from a grade-school textbookbut the answer has real consequences for working adults.

According to a recent experiment by VitalSmarts, a corporate training company, women perceived as more aggressive in the office may be penalized for their behavior—at a price of $15,088, to be exact.

In the experiment, participants watched videotaped performances of male and female managers as they gave criticism to an employee. Participants were asked to rate each manager’s competency level and the salary they thought the manager deserved.

The female managers who displayed assertive behavior were perceived as 35% less competent and worthy of $15K less in pay than their female peers who seemed less abrasive.

Granted, men who displayed negative behavior also paid a price for it, though only about half as much in lost compensation (say, $7,000).

“An emotion-inequality effect punishes women more than men,” explains leading researcher Joseph Grenny. “Women are burdened with the assumption that they will conform to cultural stereotypes that typecast women as caring and nurturing. Speaking forcefully violates these cultural norms, and women are judged more harshly than men for the same degree of assertiveness.”

So how to counteract this bias? Point it out, the experiment suggests.

When assertive female managers prefaced criticism with a framing statement that showed deliberation and forethought, it reduced the backlash from participants by as much as 27%.

Analysts offered up a few examples of how to reframe statements, from “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly” to more neutral phrasing like “I’m going to express my opinion very directly; I’ll be as specific as possible.”

Grenny noted that becoming more aware of gender bias is a good first step in recognizing when it may be coming into play.

“Secondly, women and men should learn about and use the framing skills—a relatively easy way to mitigate the bias,” he says.

Concerned you’re getting the short shrift each pay day? Consult these tips on beating wage discrimination to get paid what you deserve.

  • Career Contessa

    Interesting piece on gender discrimination in the office-thanks for sharing. The tips you give on how to preface and reframe statements are helpful, especially for women who are new to leadership or managerial roles and are trying to navigate those waters. It is important for women to know they should be assertive and “lean in” at the office, especially if it is a requirement of their job, and we must learn how to support this culture rather than seeing it as a negative trait. Great way to educate people about this phenomenon so we can make smarter decisions together.

  • Kayla Cooper

    Interesting. I know I have had semi-aggressive managers I did not agree with, but I had no idea it could be affecting their pay as well. Maybe that’s why they are always so angry. I’m now even more thankful to be the happy go-lucky type! This infographic shows the importance of office morale, and just how much those kind of mangers are affecting company growth.

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