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Organizing Younger Women
A Series by the Younger Women's Task Force (YWTF)

Women in the Workplace: Assertive vs. Aggressive
By Erika Kelley

I have been working since I was 16. And throughout the years I learned that the roles of men and women in the social and corporate world have evolved. However, early on, I also discovered that workplace stereotypes still exist. For women, it is often expected that we are to be submissive, eager-to-please, and supportive. However, if we're too nice and understanding -- we're considered emotional and soft. But, if we're a bit assertive and outspoken -- we're ice queens.

Men on the other hand are expected to be strong, forceful, and direct. What’s interesting is that in leadership and management courses, I ascertained that a “good” employee is one that exhibits directness with simplicity. A “good” employee is assertive, a trait very often exhibited by men; one that is accepted…expected.

So, the age-old question still exists: What's the appropriate stance or attitude women should have in the workplace?

My stance has been to follow the path of a “good” employee and break the “passive” female stereotype. However, instead of affirmation and recognition, I have often encountered negativity, more often from my female counterparts, and have occasionally been referred to as “aggressive.”

Here’s my story…

Over six summers ago, I decided to participate in flex-time at work. Instead of working the standard hours, 8:15 AM to 4:15 PM, I decided to change my hours to 7:30 AM to 3:30 PM. I’d miss traffic, get home in time to watch Dr. Phil with the hubby, and even have time to exercise! Sweet.

About half of the people in my office took advantage of flex-time; however, only a handful worked the early hours like me. The inconsistency between work schedules never posed a problem…until…well, allow me to explain.

With a project that surpassed its deadline and extension, my co-workers and I met frequently to consummate the project. A few times, the meetings were scheduled in the afternoon, from 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM. And like typical meetings in our office, they tarried and often exceeded the allotted time. No matter, an older (50+) Caucasian male, Michael (my former colleague’s has been changed to protect his confidentiality), that worked 7:30 AM to 3:00 PM (half hour lunch instead of an hour), would politely alert everyone that we should start wrapping-up, promptly at 2:45 PM. And that’s exactly what we did – wrap up – so that he would be able to leave at his scheduled time, 3:00 PM. What a considerate bunch, right?

Well the following week, Michael went on vacation. Like last week, we had another afternoon meeting, 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM. We started at approximately 2:15 PM and the meeting was still in session at 3:15 PM. Like Michael, I alerted the group that I would need to excuse myself in a few minutes, so it might be a good time to start wrapping-up. I expected everyone to concede, like they did normally. This time, however, was different. No one began to wrap-up. Instead, a female colleague asked me: Being the team player that I aspire to be, I agreed to stay. The meeting ended at about 3:35 PM. Not a big deal, a five-minute delay.

Two days later, the same thing happened. A meeting that was supposed to begin at 2:00 PM started about 10 minutes late and was still in session at 3:15 PM. This time, I found myself thinking: Where is Michael? Things were so different when he was present at meetings. No one ever asked him if he could stay longer. Again, like Michael, I mentioned that we had exceeded the time allotted for the meeting, and now would probably be a good time to wrap-up. I was met with sighs and rolling eyes. A female colleague even said to me: We know you leave at 3:30, Erika. There was extra emphasis on the word “know” and my name!

I digress…Have you ever watched a movie where there’s complete silence and then a brass cymbal hits the floor? This is where the cymbal hit the floor in the midst of deliberate silence.

May I make a suggestion? Can we start our meetings on time, to avoid running over the allotted time scheduled for the meeting? I was met with blank stares. A female colleague spoke up: Most of us work 8:15 AM to 4:15 PM; have you ever considered working the core hours so that you’re available for afternoon meetings? I was ready to scream, kick, and yank my hair out. I felt somewhat attacked and felt this situation was very unfair. I knew for a fact, they, who happened to be all females – Caucasian, Hispanic, and African-American, would have never asked this of Michael, but I wasn’t sure why.

So, I looked at the differences: Michael was Caucasian, a male, and over 50. I was African-American, a female, and in my late 20s. But so what? Which is exactly why I said: Yes, I have considered working the core hours; however, my current hours better accommodate my lifestyle. I was then told: Well, you’re free to go. With that, I gathered up my belongings and said to the group: Enjoy the rest of your day; I’ll follow-up with you regarding what I missed tomorrow.

The office informant later told me that I had been dubbed: aggressive. Nonetheless, the meetings for the remainder of the week started and ended and time, as scheduled. And the week thereafter, Michael returned.

To be or not to be assertive? That is the question.

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The Younger Women's Task Force (YWTF), a project of the National Council of Women's organizations, is a nationwide, diverse and inclusive grassroots movement dedicated to organizing younger women and their allies to take action on issues that matter most to them. By and for younger women, YWTF works both within and beyond the women's movement, engaging all who are invested in advancing the rights of younger women.

Through its 8 chapters, YWTF members are working to: 1) Provide a stronger voice in the policy making process for women in their 20's and 30's; 2) Increase the impact of younger women activists through the articulation of, and collaboration on, a common agenda; 3) Create a culture of inclusion where decision-making and power are practiced collectively, and members from diverse backgrounds participate in all levels of YWTF; 4) Define and develop the next generation of women leaders; and 5) Create a local and national network for peer mentoring, networking and sharing resources.

To find out more about YWTF, please email Shannon Lynberg at [email protected]

Knox Fellowship

The Younger Women's Task Force (YWTF) is proud to announce the 2008-2009 Alexis Geneva Knox Fellowship in support of Younger Women's Leadership, Scholarship, and Advocacy.

This 12-month fellowship will be awarded in June of 2008. The fellowship will provide 1-3 younger women with a chance to pursue artistic, activist, skills building, and/or career advancement opportunities as well as financial assistance, mentoring, and professional leadership consultation.

About the Fellowship

The Alexis Knox Fellowship is an innovative national program designed to support younger women as they build their leadership capacity and support the YWTF community.

The Alexis Knox Fellowship is named in honor of Alexis Knox, a founding member of YWTF and a younger woman whose leadership potential was cut short when she past away in 2006. Still, at 22 years old, Alexis was a seasoned activist at Barnard College and in her volunteer work. She was the first to register for YWTF's founding meet-up, served as co-director of the YWTF NYC Chapter and was an integral member of our community. She will be greatly missed and in establishing this Fellowship, her commitment to women's leadership will live on.

Fellowship Fund: Selected fellows will receive a grant from the Alexis Knox Fellowship Fund of $1,200 to $3,000 to support leadership activities through individual and collaborative projects. Fellows are encouraged to pursue activities that enhance their public leadership skills, reach diverse constituencies, and build community. The Fund also offers fellows the opportunity to collaborate with others within the YWTF community and expand their work beyond their specific chapter city.

Fellowship proposals must directly support the YWTF community. The activities must support younger women and must be inline with YWTF's mission, vision, and values.

Application and Selection Process: All applicants who are active YWTF members must receive a recommendation from their Chapter Director. Applicants who are not active members must attend a chapter meeting, interview with the local chapter director, and submit a letter of recommendation. Applicants who live in cities with no YWTF presence must submit two letters of recommendation. You can download the full application at www.ywtf.org. All application materials must be submitted via email by 5:00PM on May 19th. YWTF Knox Fellow applicants will be reviewed by the YWTF National Coordinator, the Coordinating Board, and the Advisory Board. Selected applicants will be notified in the month of June 2008. Additional contact may be made with fellowship applicants during selection process.

If you have any questions regarding the Knox Fellowship, contact Shannon Lynberg, National Coordinator, at [email protected] or 202-293-4506.

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