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New Study: Women Judged More Harshly When Speaking Up Assertively

Women’s perceived deserved compensation drops twice as much as men—by up to $15,088—when they are equally aggressive in workplace communication; Study by VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty company, points to a skill that reduces bias by 27%—but should women use it?

Provo, Utah August 5, 2015 – What if your colleagues discriminated against you just for being assertive? Unfortunately for many women, gender bias is a reality in today’s workplace. A new study about emotional inequality at work conducted by VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty, Inc. company, reveals women’s perceived competency drops by 35 percent and their perceived deserved compensation by $15,088[1] when they are assertive or forceful. Assertive men are also punished, but at lesser rates.

Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield, leading researchers of the study of more than 11,000 participants, present their findings in a new white paper. The e-book version will be released with the webinar, “Women in Business: One Simple Skill to Curb Unconscious Gender Bias,” presented by Grenny and VitalSmarts Senior Master Trainer Candace Bertotti, Aug. 11 at 1 p.m. EST. The white paper, and accompanying BS Guys video, offer reasons for the inequality, warnings about making snap judgments, and reveal a simple skill that reduces the damage of workplace bias by 27 percent[2]—enabling both women and men in the office to more consciously speak their minds to minimize backlash.

“Speaking up in forceful, assertive ways is especially risky for women,” said Grenny, coauthor of the New York Times bestseller Crucial Conversations. “An emotion-inequality effect punishes women more than men. Women are burdened with the assumption that they will conform to cultural stereotypes that typecast women as caring and nurturing. Speaking forcefully violates these cultural norms, and women are judged more harshly than men for the same degree of assertiveness.”

Grenny said that emotional inequality is real and it is unfair. And while it is unacceptable and needs to be addressed at a cultural, legal, organizational, and social level, individuals can take control.

The research also shows that using a brief, framing statement—that demonstrates deliberation, forethought, and control—reduces the social-backlash and emotion-inequality effects by 27 percent.

“Our research proves it’s all in how you frame it,” Maxfield said.

As explained in the white paper, by framing the assertive statement with what the authors term a “behavior phrase,” a “value phrase,” or an “inoculation phrase,” the negative perception was significantly reduced. These phrases include:

  • “I’m going to express my opinion very directly; I’ll be as specific as possible.” (behavior phrase)
  • “I see this as a matter of honesty and integrity, so it’s important for me to be clear about where I stand.” (value phrase)
  • “I know it’s a risk for a woman to speak this assertively, but I’m going to express my opinion very directly.” (inoculation phrase)

The white paper explains how and why such framing phrases work so effectively.

The paper also details how the research was conducted. In the first study, 4,517 participants observed videotaped performances and then rated the male or female “manager” using a 20-item survey. In the second study, 7,921 participants played the observer role and followed a similar pattern, this time rating the actors after they used the framing statements (phrases) listed above.

“In short, speaking forcefully creates a social backlash,” Maxfield said. “That backlash is amplified for women and can adversely affect an individual’s career and prove costly to an organization’s effectiveness. We believe the implications of this research will empower individuals and leaders to be more aware of gender bias as well as engage in and encourage candid discussion while minimizing negative impacts.”

Grenny summarized what organizations and their employees can do about this trend.

“First, both women and men should be aware this bias is happening—often unconsciously—and they should do everything in their power to stop it,” Grenny said. “Secondly, women and men should learn about and use the framing skills—a relatively easy way to mitigate the bias.”

Note to Editor: Grenny and Maxfield are available for interviews. The white paper “Emotion Inequality: Skills to Minimize Social Backlash,” along with full survey results, an executive summary, video and hi-res infographics are available (see http://www.crucialskills.com/2015/08/one-simple-skill-to-curb-unconscious-gender-bias/). Copies of their books Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything are also available.

About VitalSmarts

Named one of the Top 20 Leadership Training Companies, VitalSmarts, a TwentyEighty, Inc. company, is home to the award-winning Crucial Conversations, Crucial Accountability, Influencer, and Change Anything Training and New York Times bestselling books of the same titles. When used in combination, these courses enable organizations to achieve new levels of performance by changing employee behavior. VitalSmarts has consulted with more than 300 of the Fortune 500 companies and trained more than one million people worldwide. http://www.vitalsmarts.com

About TwentyEighty, Inc.

TwentyEighty is a global provider of workforce performance solutions designed to help companies in the areas of leadership performance, sales performance, credit performance and strategic execution. www.twentyeighty.com


[1] These are the differences between the perceived competency and worth of the control condition, where the person was not assertive, and the perceived competency and worth of the experimental condition, where the person was assertive.

[2] This is the percentage reduction in damage to perceived competency, status, and annual net worth, when a framing phrase was used.

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