By Jordan Winberg
The following article is part of a multi-part series of excerpts from the author’s senior thesis. Begin with Part 1.
Assertiveness in Women: Is it Different from Men?
To begin, aggression/assertiveness is commonly thought to effect leadership ability, an idea supported by scientific evidence. Very low levels of assertiveness are associated with the inability to complete tasks and achieve goals, while markedly high levels of assertiveness are associated with negative relationship building (Ames & Flynn, 2007). Therefore, if women are perceived as having low-levels of assertiveness, they will not be received as being effective leaders (Ames & Flynn, 2007).
Second, research suggests that if one does not perceive himself or herself to be a good leader, others will not perceive them to be good leaders also, even if he or she does in fact have good leadership skills. (Chemers, Watson, & May, 2000). In other words, if because of low self-esteem women do not perceive themselves as effective leaders, this could impact the way that they are perceived as leaders by others.
If we assume gender differences do in fact exist, let’s explore the origins of those difference. Are these differences learned from the environment, or are they innate? Since assertiveness affects leadership ability, and since assertiveness may be an existing gender difference, it is an important trait to explore.
To begin, some evidence suggests that females are less assertive than men (Feingold, 1994), and some evidence suggests that this is over-exaggerated, and may not exist (Hyde, 2005). While there are many different studies that attempt to confirm or deny this, there is one study that stands out. In 2001, Jean Twenge set out to get a more comprehensive, historical answer to the question: “are females naturally less assertive?”. To do this, Twenge analyzed meta-analyses and commonly accepted tests of assertion levels (Bernreuter Personality Inventory, the EPPS, the CPI, the College Self-Expression Scale, and the Rathus Assertiveness Schedule) from the years 1930-1993, and these measures were compared to societal expectations.
Results showed that the levels of assertion in women varied historically, and evidence suggests these variations were linked to societal expectations (Twenge, 2001). From the years 1931-1945, levels of female assertion were on a rise, which Twenge’s paper stated was due to the self-sufficiency needed to survive during the great depression and World War Two. Yet, from the years 1946-1967, these scores dropped. Twenge attributed this change to the passive domesticity encouraged in the 50’s and early 60’s. Despite this, from the years 1968-1993, female measures of assertion were again on the rise, this time due to the movements for freedom and equality that began in the late 60’s and carried over into the following decades.
These assertions were supported by citations from historians, along with measures of societal expectations for women. Measures used to rate societal expectations were: women’s educational attainment, women’s median age at first marriage, and women’s participation in the labor force. In other words, when women’s scores for assertion decreased, their scores for educational attainment, median age for marriage, and participation in the workforce also decreased, suggesting that scores for female assertion are linked with societal expectation and environmental cohorts (Twenge, 2001).
This data supports the theory that changes in societal attitudes are crucial for change; if gender-role expectations do not change, then social behavior and personality are not likely to change. Twenge went on to critique Feingold’s meta-analysis on gender differences, stating that averaging the data over a long period of time does not give an accurate representation of current gender differences. Feingold’s meta-analysis uses normative data to describe changes, even though it is clear that there are cohort differences for certain periods of time. In extension, if the curvilinear nature of the data was accounted for, and if data was described in terms of changes of the mean scores over time, there would be a much smaller difference between male and female assertion scores in more recent years, creating a more accurate depiction of the data.
Assertiveness in Children
The above information presents a compelling argument. Nevertheless, significant differences between levels of assertion can still be found today – between boys and girls at an early age. This is oftentimes measured in the form of classroom participation. While data can vary between age, region, and race, it is commonly accepted that males, in general, participate more often in the classroom, and this can be seen as early as preschool. This may support the idea that males are more innately assertive. However, some bodies of research think otherwise.
Teaching methods significantly affect a student’s learning and interactions (Turner & Patrick, 2004). Additionally, teachers have been found encouraging male participation more often, thus discouraging female participation (Jule, 2004). Since this pattern of behavior is encouraged at a young age, it trains females to be less assertive than males. Therefore, evidence suggests that teaching habits may be stifling assertion levels in females, which may later hinder their ability to lead and/or be seen as effective leaders.
However, while this piece of evidence was based solid methods (researcher counted the number of times boys and girls were called on, the number of times boys had girls had statements that the teacher repeated, and the number of times boys and girls were addressed by first name for months), results were based on a case study from one small classroom. Before we can generalize results, more, larger replications of the study are needed. All things considered, there is a large body of evidence that suggests that female assertion levels can be repressed by society, and that this can negatively affect their ability to become leaders.