Assertive vs Aggression — How to walk the bias tightrope.

Black woman chairing meeting

The speculation around Kamala Harris’ debate performance is over and in my opinion, she scored a B+

Going into it the cards were stacked against her, as not only was she debating on policy, but she had to be conscious of not falling into the stereotypical tropes bandied around about women in power, even more so for women of color.

Having watched the debate, I thought she was measured and restrained but from the side eye and facial expressions, you could see she was holding back, she wasn’t her full self. Whereas VP Pence displayed the behavior we are not surprised to see from a man — talking over both Kamala and the female moderator, interrupting and going over his allotted time.

Kamala demonstrated integrity and respect for the rules, even though you could see she was fighting several snapbacks to VP Pence’s remarks. When you heard “Mr. Vice President, I’m speaking.” followed by “If you don’t mind letting me finish, we can then have a conversation, OK?” , you knew she was done!

This was assertion! It’s a level of confidence many women struggle with especially when conversing with someone in a position of perceived power. And unfortunately, assertive women have a bad rap, with assertion being misconstrued as aggression. For Black women, the racial stereotypes line up front and centre, as were labeled “loud” and “angry” .

Assertiveness is about respecting the other person and still speaking up to respect yourself.

  • It’s not about being “facety”.
  • It’s not about you being above your place.
  • It’s not about being the loudest in the room.

It IS about you knowing who you are when asked “Who does she think she is?” and owning it.

How women can be more assertive.

  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses — Learn how to leverage them to reach your goals. Assertive women use this knowledge to further improve themselves, to test limits and go beyond it. You want to go into a male dominated field? Go into it with your eyes wide open. Prepare yourself, be ready, know what sort of skills you need to have in order to navigate the environment. It’s a case of forewarned is forearmed, but don’t let anyone stop you.
  2. Prepare to fail and learn from it — In life, you will fail. Not just once or twice, but over and over again. However, assertive women do not lose heart and instead learn from failures and build strengths from there. In my This Woman Can interview with Dr. Rochelle Haynes of Crowd Potential Consulting Inc. she shared how adopting a mindset of “I don’t fail, I learn” enabled her to create a successful career within a niche industry.
  3. Stop asking for permission — Avoid using phrase qualifiers (just, maybe, I think, probably, very) and asking permission (may I, sorry, excuse me), the language women fall back to so as to appear non confrontational.
  4. Get straight to the point — How many times have you been in a meeting listening to a female colleague trying to defend a course of action and thought “ Can she get to the point?” Or “What point is she trying to make?”. Much like the above, she’s trying desperately to walk the bias tightrope but is losing the room and the argument. Avoid falling into this trap, by respecting the other person’s time. Don’t over-egg what you’re trying to say, stick to the facts and be prepared for pushback. Don’t apologize before and after making your point.
  5. Be cognizant of your body language — Communication is not just the words you say! Non-assertive postures include slouching, hunching shoulders, shuffling, avoiding eye contact, holding your head to one side or standing off balance. Instead, Stand straight, steady, directly facing the person you’re speaking to whilst maintaining eye contact. Speak fluently in a clear, steady voice, without hesitation and with assurance and confidence.
  6. Seek a mentor and feedback — Is there someone’s who’s delivery you admire male or female? Tell them what leadership you’re working on and ask for their advice and feedback. It helps you assess your progress and provides a sounding board.

Wondering how Kamala would have scored an A+? By being able to be herself without fear of judgement.

Janice Sutherland is an award winning women’s leadership expert and founder of This Woman Can an online career network for professional women of color. She provides coaching and training specializing in helping women and organizations build leadership skills through Executive Mentorship, Leadership Training and Executive Team Facilitation for both corporate executives and entrepreneurs globally. She is a sought after keynote presenter for corporate and nonprofit environments and speaks on issues relating to leadership, women’s advancement, professional success and work/life alignment. For more details, visit



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