Bringing together women in the UK packaging industry

Bossy versus Assertive

Bossy versus Assertive

Language is powerful. Synonyms can evoke very different emotional responses in the listener, despite meaning the same thing. Economical and cheap, for example, have the same definition but the connotations are wildly different, one positive and one decidedly negative. Words adopt the meaning that the population collectively gives them, which is why language is so fluid. The Oxford English Dictionary added over 2,000 new words, sub-entries and senses in 2018, which gives a sense of how rapidly language evolves.

One of the interesting dichotomies of language is ‘bossy’ versus ‘assertive’, but unfortunately for a large proportion of women in contemporary business and high-profile roles, it’s a difference that they’re all too familiar with. A challenge in business that has gained more prominence in recent years, and the print and packaging sector is no exception, is that where a man performing a management role with confidence and conviction is seen as ‘assertive’, too often a woman in the same role with the same qualities is considered ‘bossy’.

It may seem in the grand scheme of things, as women still struggle to receive the same recognition and promotion opportunities as their male counterparts, as well as being underrepresented in the upper echelons of management, that language should be a low priority concern; but it’s an example of a micro-aggression. Micro-aggressions are small, often subconscious behaviours, habits and patterns that, often unintentionally, cause harm to a marginalised or underrepresented group. Women can fall foul of micro-aggressions as well, because by their very nature, they are ingrained in culture. Examples include assuming that women are less qualified than they are, failing to celebrate female accomplishments to the same degree as their male counterparts, and a subconscious tendency to prioritise men for promotion and executive roles over equally qualified women.

The difference between bossy and assertive, and the inherent gendering of these adjectives, boils down to our embedded subliminal ideas of what defines masculine and feminine characteristics, and how this translates into communication and authority in the workplace. Despite ongoing progress, the world of business has been male dominated for so long that individuals subconsciously attribute qualities to certain genders, which means terms like assertive, ambitious, driven and competitive tend to be used more frequently to describe men in business than women. Because these terms comprise what is considered an authoritative leader, there is a latent tendency to see leadership itself as a typically male role. The disconnect in our subconscious preference inherently puts women at a disadvantage, even in well-meaning individuals. Unconscious bias ultimately contributes to the glass ceiling that women face when attempting upward mobility in the workplace.

The risk of having authority seen as bossiness also builds an unnecessary confidence barrier, which may deter women from seeking growth or promotion. A study by Psychological Science in 2008 highlighted the problem with how the populace collectively views women in the workplace. The report showed that male employees generally received a boost in perceived status and authority after expressing anger. In stark contrast, women of the same seniority that expressed anger were consistently accorded lower perceived status and were seen as less competent. The report shows a real inconsistency in how people view leadership on account of gender.

This phenomenon has been referred to as the ‘assertiveness penalty’ or double-bind; women in the workplace can be hesitant to take up leadership roles because of the connotations that come with it when they are required to exert actions of authority. In emerging as leaders, women adopt characteristics that are consistent with leadership stereotypes, but when acting more assertively, they breach inherent feminine stereotypes and suffer a social and professional penalty as a result. Where a male executive is seen as pro-active and forthright in voicing opinions, offering advice and seeking promotion, the standard that people collectively hold women to does not offer them the same reward. To counter this, many women in positions of authority moderate their language and behaviours to suit, which can also rob the business of the potential of these individuals.

Women In Packaging UK challenges this status-quo at its core. The organisation aims to provide women in the print and packaging industry with opportunities to meet, grow and learn from shared experience. As with many STEM fields, women are still underrepresented at each stage of the supply chain from the boardroom to the factory floor. The Women In Packaging UK initiative aims to help female employees in the industry grow in knowledge and confidence to address the gender imbalance.

WIP UK celebrates workforce diversity in the packaging industry, as well as highlighting opportunities for growth and development. To find out more about upcoming WIP UK events and how you can get involved, click here.

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