The successful woman’s paradox

(by Anna Baker and illustrated by Vaneeza Jawad)

POV: you sit down and open Instagram for some classic midday scrolling, swiping reel after reel without a care in the world. Along comes a TikTok with the caption ‘editing my work emails to match my male colleagues’. A young woman has written a work email in a friendly tone, abundant with exclamation marks and emotive language. She edits it to have a much more assertive and blunt tone. She closes her laptop and drinks some water, her hand visibly shaking from nerves. A small and entertaining TikTok succinctly captures a paradox I am much familiar with.

Growing up as a girl, I was bombarded with ideas about what I should be – kind, empathetic, warm, and approachable. If you are assertive, it can be misinterpreted as aggression. If you are blunt, direct, or anything less than hyper-friendly, you are rude. In reality, you are simply matching the behaviour that many men display daily without a second thought from anyone. But when a woman strays from these decidedly ‘feminine’ qualities, she is condemned.

Assertive and direct communication becomes a conscious decision for a woman like our TikTok star; an act of rebellion against her ‘conditioning’. She must intentionally break away from these habits and ideas, realising she doesn’t need to always put others first, to sugarcoat her requests to not appear rude, or constantly maintain this warm and friendly facade.

In doing so, in communicating in the way of her male colleagues, she feels incredibly nervous, guilty, afraid of being seen as a bitch. Which is ridiculous: a woman should be able to extend the same behaviour as her male counterparts and receive the same courtesy and respect.

Yet, whilst women should not feel nervous about communicating assertively, they should also not need to communicate in this style. Perhaps our leading lady actually preferred her original, friendly and emotive email, but changed it in order to be respected by her colleagues. I believe that this tantalising TikTok revealed the flipside of the issue. Women should not have to adapt to any masculine standards to be respected.

For years, women were kept out of work, deemed ‘too emotional’, or too ‘hysterical’ for the professional rationality of the workplace. But emotion is not a weakness. To be able to be empathetic, compassionate, and warm is incredibly powerful. These qualities should be as respected as the ability to be assertive and direct. To make your colleagues feel seen, meet them where they are, and empower them to do the best work they can, is crucial. Emotion is not a weakness but is incredibly powerful.

Thus, that one TikTok so effortlessly captured what I deem to be the successful woman’s paradox. When communicating with colleagues, does she extend assertive and direct communication, but risk being seen as aggressive? Or does she offer emotive and friendly communication, but risk not being taken seriously? Anyone should be able to communicate in the way that is natural to them, and receive equal respect and courtesy for it.

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