Women In Leadership: The Place Of Assertiveness And Recognition Of Human Rights

Last Updated: 13 Jan 2021
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The assumption that women leaders tend to be aggressive has been largely upheld, in Africa. That is not to say that all women leaders in Africa are aggressive; arguably, however, most women leaders tend to exhibit aggressive behaviour creating an impression of aggression within women leaders regardless of the reality. Assertiveness is a key quality expected from leaders or managers (Philips, 2002; Ames and Flynn, 2007) particularly those who have a lot of responsibilities. Those who aspire or are appointed as leaders are expected to posses and exhibit such qualities creating a self fulfilling prophecy. Assertiveness is, therefore, viewed as a dimension describing the tendency by people to speak for, defend, and act in their interest, values, and goals (in Ames and Flynn, 2006). A leader therefore, should be capable of planning, strategically; communicating clearly to other members of staff and rendering support to staff for effectiveness and success, but that is not always the case, particularly when it comes to female leaders.

The questions, therefore, are; what are the factors responsible for lack of assertiveness among women leaders, in Nigeria and why this often manifests itself as aggression rather than effective assertivenessA further question Is raised as to whether it is only seen as an issue for Nigerian women leaders, or is it a general disposition of the female genderThis essay, therefore, will give a brief chronological account of my career, identify the problems encountered that informed the choice of assertiveness and recognition of human rights (which are interconnected) and will therefore be discussed as part of one concept, namely, assertiveness. Related literature on assertiveness will be discussed and the factors responsible for its absence in women leaders. The importance of assertiveness for women in leadership positions will be reiterated. An action plan for my career will be highlighted and then concluded. It is worth stating, at this point, that the entire essay is going to be based on my personal experience and my context, except where otherwise mentioned. The essay will refer to females as women and males as men, because the essay is gender related.

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My career

I started my teaching career at the age of twenty three, in a nursery and primary school, in Kaduna state of Nigeria. I had just finished a diploma course in Special Education at the University of Jos, in Nigeria, and was enthusiastic about joining the teaching profession. Although the school where I was employed to teach was neither a special nor a mainstream school, I was eager to put my teaching skills to good use. It was an unpleasant start, as I had to write and teach thirty-six lessons every week; the lesson notes must be ready by the end of Friday, because the head teacher will mark them over the weekend and then give them back to teachers, on Monday morning. Although the work was demanding, my major problem was the relationship between the head teacher and staff. I eventually left on health grounds.

My second experience was after my undergraduate studies at the same University. After my undergraduate studies, I went through the one year compulsory National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) which I completed in Kaduna Polytechnic and was offered employment a year after the exercise. I served under a male Head of Department (HOD), during my NYSC, but met a woman head when I was employed as a staff member. I had a heavier work load than most senior teachers, which the HOD attributed to my level and the fact that I did not have other responsibilities. This alerted me to the notion that leaders were often perceived t ho ave ‘different’ responsibilities In short, while the HOD made me the departmental secretary, welfare committee secretary, assistant registration officer and assistant exams’ officer, the work load did not change showing a lack of leader understanding of the precise role. She eventually finished her tenure and another woman was elected.

The third experience I had was another woman HOD who was elected into the position by other members of staff of the department, in conformation with the new rule in the institution; previously, headship was by appointment by the school management team. I had thought, at this point, that I would be relieved of some of my responsibilities, if not all. However, when the new head assumed duty, instead, my duties increased as she would call me to do just about anything, if was within sight and would then show no appreciation for the work done. This raised issues of how work was attributed to staff and how leaders look towards achieving a balanced workload for all staff, something which had been lacking in my experience.

Problems identified

The previous paragraphs have given a brief account of my career; this paragraph will focus on issues I consider problematic in staff relationships with women leaders. I have observed, from a distance, that the behaviour of women leaders, across the board, (e.g. church, unions, societies, etc.), in combination with my personal experience and have come to the conclusion that most women leaders are unnecessarily difficult to work with and often aggressive. I have heard some men endorse that opinion, as well. The three women I have worked with have a striking similarity in their behaviours all ultimately leading to aggression, which is characterised by being domineering, sarcastic, hard-edged, strident, impatient and blaming others. Furthermore, they were not assertive in their relationship with staff; they had no respect for staff, although they demanded respect from the staff, in turn. They acted as if they were superior beings who wanted to be revered; they were, in my opinion, ruthless to other colleagues and staff, generally. They were aware of their powers and exercised them to the fullest. Such women leaders tend to favour those they liked and victimise others. My first head teacher would tell staff members to report her, if they had the nerve; she knew nothing would be done about it; she always had things her way. These leaders make derogatory statements to staff, oblivious to who is listening; it was a common occurrence. Sometimes it happened right before the students; which could engender disrespect for teachers by their students, a situation that is avoidable. This was seen as a consistent way of operating by female leaders.

I recall my first day at work with amazement; I was disappointed at the way in which I was handed some necessary items I needed and a list of dos and don’ts by the stern looking head teacher. It felt as though it was purely an exercise of power, although I had thought that the head teacher might have problems at home, but came to realise that that was how she operated, in general. With my second employment, the HOD just collected my letter of employment and acknowledged it and that was all. I was not assigned an office, nor was there an orientation of any kind; I had to learn by trial and error or by asking other members of staff. I felt, from inception, that there was an enormous problem regarding leadership. This is because there was a lot of manipulation and no room for collaboration. In one of the cases, there was an outburst from the teachers when the HOD’s attitudes became unbearable; almost all staff members passed a vote of no confidence in the HOD and forwarded it to the school management. Although they had their good sides, it was however outweighed by their aggression. These kinds of dispositions seem to make staff members become emotionally exhausted and stressed, especially those who are passive, which affects the productivity of staff as a whole and does not create a team mentality.

Literature Review

Having given a brief history of my career and also identified what posed as challenges for me and other staff members, because of the disposition of the head teachers, it becomes imperative to look at what literature says about the assertiveness of women in leadership. Assertiveness is a critical issue, in Nigeria’s leaders; however, there is little or no literature in that regard concerning the concept, generally, and in regards to women, specifically. Assertiveness is a concept that are hardly mentioned and likewise the need for well managed assertiveness and the ignorance exhibited in this regard seems to affect the majority of the people, to a large extent, which leaders use to their advantage. These two concepts of assertiveness and human rights, as mentioned in the introduction are interconnected and inseparable, because assertiveness is all about knowing one’s rights and acknowledging the rights of others. It is this latter factor that is particularly relevant in the discussion. For instance, Back and Back in Armstrong (1991) stated that assertiveness is “standing up your for own rights” and, at the same time, taking into account the rights of others. In other words, know your rights and your limits, in order not to violate another person’s rights. The two concepts will therefore be discussed as one, namely assertiveness.

Assertiveness is the ability of an individual to act clearly, honestly, and to communicate directly (Dickson, 2012) and is considered a critical component of leadership effectiveness (Ames and Flynn, 2006). In other words, for leaders to succeed and advance in their leadership roles, they must be assertive. As stated earlier, one outstanding quality of assertiveness, I believe, is being aware of one’s rights and respecting the rights of other people; its importance in the work place and in life generally cannot be over emphasized. Despite this there are difference between assertiveness and aggression which needs to be recognised in this discussion.

Assertiveness can be proactive (acting rather than reacting) and reactive (responding rather initiating), both verbal and non-verbal (by means of words and action) (Ames and Flynn, 2006; Ames, 2009), depending on the situation or circumstance. Ames and Flynn (2006), in research which they carried out (not specifically on women) tried to establish the relationship between assertiveness and leadership and came up with some interesting concepts; high and low assertiveness. High assertiveness, they opine, results in what they term instrumental reward, meaning that leaders compromise their relationship with colleagues and subordinates in order to attain goals. Low assertiveness, on the other hand, results in social reward, which involves compromising attainment of goals in the quest of maintaining a good relationship with staff. Belonging to either of these two levels of assertiveness is already a challenge, as the leader in question would have to compromise one thing, in other to achieve the other; presumably the two are of utmost importance. The question is, if being assertive is a positive quality that leaders should possess, what are the factors or barriers that prevent leaders from exhibiting assertive behaviours?

Factors responsible for women’s lack of assertiveness

Internal and external stimuli (Oplatka and Tamir, 2009) are words used in describing reasons for women leaders’ lack of assertiveness, according to research carried out by Oplatka and Tamir. They posit that women who aspire for leadership positions (internal stimulus) are more likely to exhibit assertiveness and display more confidence than those who have waited for the positions to be offered, or were asked to apply (external stimulus). One factor, according to these researchers, that stands in the way between women and assertiveness is their unwillingness or unpreparedness to be leaders or school heads. Furthermore a lack of understanding of the role of a head may also create difficulties in harnessing natural leadership skills towards creating an efficient team working environment.

Another factor, as suggested by Coleman (2002), is family responsibilities. Married women have enormous family responsibilities; leadership in the work place adds to it and seems to affect their advancement in the office in a way that a male counterpart may not experience. It would not be strange for a woman to walk into the office and pick on the first person she sees, not because of anything they have done wrong, but possibly as a result of a pending issue with spouse, children or any family member; it happens frequently in my context. Contrary to Coleman’s suggestion, Hall (1996) in a study of six women head teachers, in the U.S, found women leaders (American) to be effective in their roles as leaders. Hall discovered that these women, although in different schools, showed some similarities in their leadership styles, which he attributes to family experiences from childhood, especially roles they played as girls who were taught by their mothers. These school heads had a smooth working relationship with their staff; there was collaboration, openness, and shared decision-making, with no attempt made to dominate; they use this strategy, only when other means have failed (Hall, 1996). This distinction between the US experiences and the experiences in Nigeria could be due to the fact that the US is generally more accepting of women in powerful positions and society supports full time female workers in the US in a way that is not as available in Nigeria.

Fear of failure and insecurity, according to Oplatka and Tamir (2009), is another impediment to women leaders’ advancement and exhibiting qualities considered to be assertive. What are they afraid of or insecure aboutGender related insecurities, because of male dominance, ( Oplatka and Tamir, 2009), gender stereotype, hostility towards women (Bickel, 2001) were identified as possible reasons responsible for the non-assertive behaviour women leaders exhibit. Poor self-image was suggested as affecting women’s attitude and effectiveness as self-confidence is largely linked with the developmental process and experiences an individual encounters, is exposed to, has interacted or associated with (Morgan et al, (1981); Mathipa and Tsoka, 2001); which Mathipa and Tsoka argue is, to a large extent, dependent on the type of education women receive. The type of education either builds an individual’s confidence or creates a lack of confidence, which heightens fears and insecurities among women. Creating a greater general acceptance of women in management roles would reduce the need to be overly aggressive when asserting the management position. Mathipa and Tsoka (2001) reiterated that women are not born with a poor self-image, but are culturally educated to respect and uphold others. This is especially true in Africa, where a woman is supposed to be ‘seen and not heard’. However, those who live in urban areas exhibit more confident behaviour than those in rural areas. In consonance with this, Mathipa and Tsoka, Milgram (1970 in Ames 2009) stated that assertive behaviour differs between those in urban and rural settings and within regions of a country depending on their experiences within society (Cohen and Nisbett, 1994, in Ames, 2009). This is a clear pointer to the role culture plays in the issue of women leaders’ assertiveness.

Discussion of issues

The amount of literature available on the issue of assertiveness of women leaders is an indication of the challenges faced by women leaders. The discussion will, therefore, be centred on the themes revealed in the literature. Women leaders have two main issues to contend with; the fact that they are women and also the need to be accepted as effective leaders. The world is a man’s world, as is the common belief, in certain regions, which is why the disposition of a woman in leadership is crucial. In an article based on South African women, lack of assertiveness was mentioned as a barrier to women’s advancement to leadership positions, particularly in the education profession (Mathipa and Tsoka, 2001). In my opinion, the same is applicable to Nigeria.

Women would naturally not prepare and plan for leadership, in Nigeria; however that is not to say that some women do not aspire to leadership roles. There is a perception that a ‘woman’s place is in the home’; most women were brought up with that belief, with the constant reminder that the man is the head (natural leader) of the family. The underlying fact is that they do not plan nor prepare for leadership (Oplatka and Tamir, 2009). I would argue, therefore, that men do not go through any formal training or even plan (sometimes) to be leaders, but their approach to leadership is different; again, that is not in any way saying that all men are good leaders or heads. A male head, for example, would hardly come to the office in the morning with an attitude, because of an incident that happened in the home. The male leader is also more comfortable in their position as it is perceived to be more ‘normal’ and there isn’t the same desire to prove themselves as the leader from the outset. My course mate shared with me her experience about her encounter with a head teacher in one of the schools, who shouted at her because she went to get the keys to a particular room, to pick a musical instrument which she was supposed to play for the children (she was not told until that morning). Women appear to be very emotional, which may be responsible for the way they behave at times. For instance, my HOD summoned me, on one occasion, and was abusive in her words, only to discover that she was wrong because she accused me, wrongly; however, she did not apologise; she was the head. My rights were trampled upon, but being a passive person, it was impossible to respond. Being prepared for leadership is necessary, which I suppose is responsible for the creation of the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) in England, in 1997, which is a mandatory requirement for headship (Bush and Oduro, 2006).

Assigning responsibilities to teachers was also suggested (Mangin, 2009), in order to begin to prepare teachers for future headship responsibilities. This may not fit well, in my context, as most of those in leadership have held other responsibilities in lesser capacities, before becoming head teachers. All these strategies are helpful; however, in my opinion, assertiveness is not just to be taught, but is a skill to be learned. Furthermore it is contended that having greater confidence in themselves will reduce instances of unecesary aggression as they will be content in their role without the need to trample others.

Family responsibility is another factor responsible for women’s lack of assertiveness and can be highly influential to their role in the workplace. From my experience, acknowledging that it is not easy for a woman to be a leader, yet if she has a family, is necessary as it is an important part of how she has developed as a leader. The woman is typically responsible for everything that happens on the home front, in addition to other responsibilities outside the home. The experience of this head teacher is to buttress this assertion. This head teacher leaves her house as early as 5.00am, in order to beat the traffic, that is, after she has prepared breakfast for her husband (no children yet). She leaves the office and arrives home around 7.00pm, because of the traffic. Her husband faithfully waits for her return, to cook his meals (he has no job) which involves her working within the home as well as at work; this she does everyday. She pays all the bills and provides food; her husband does nothing and would not help even with house chores (he is the head of the family). This social limitation places greater pressures on the female leaders I went to see one head one morning; immediately she saw me she broke down and wept. This is one scenario out of so many that women go through. This may be an extreme scenario, but there are a lot of women heads who do not experience up to a fraction of this and yet lose control in the office, resulting in unnecessary conflict; surprisingly, the head teacher in the story above is not aggressive, neither is she passive; one would not even have the slightest inclination that she had a problem, if she had not opened up to discuss it. This behaviour is unique to her, as not every woman can tolerate that without reacting; this, I would argue is the result of individual differences in people. Individual differences in assertiveness are also crucial in how leaders are perceived and their success as a leader (Ames and Flynn, 2000).

The notion about the upbringing of the girl child that translates into assertive behaviour is also worth mentioning. There was a practice, in earlier times, that is still being practised by some families, in Nigeria. When a boy wants to get married, his parents secretly inquire about the girl’s family; the purpose is to find out the norms and values of her family; this they believe will tell them the kind of behaviour the girl is likely to exhibit. That will inform their decision on whether the boy should marry the girl, or not. Although the research was carried out on American head teachers, the girl’s childhood upbringing is also taken seriously, in Nigeria. However, it does not always follow; as parents would do everything possible and children will grow and choose their own path. That is not in any way implying that the girl child’s upbringing has no influence in adulthood. Having such a strong parental influence is relevant as this may impact on the way that a woman perceives herself and a female that has not been encouraged to carve a career for herself may face increased personal barriers to showing well placed assertiveness.

Lack of assertiveness in women heads tend to create fear and make them insecure in their role. It could be because they feel intimidated by other colleagues, or lack confidence in their ability to carry out their responsibilities. Although leaders tend to put on a good front, they become emotionally exhausted in trying to stay on top of their game, something which is exacerbated when they also have family pressures. I recall with disdain how my head would add her workload to mine and demand I meet the deadline; with authority of course. Other staff members claimed that she saw me as a threat and was trying to frustrate me; it was almost the same experience with the other three women heads I worked with. The question is, if one is insecure, why take out their frustrations on other peopleAlthough the heads behave almost in the same way to all staff, men find it extremely difficult to tolerate such behaviours from female leaders. In the African culture, it is natural for men to be leaders and awkward or strange for a woman to be leaders, where there are men; culture has placed the woman below the man. Unassertive behaviours by women leaders only strengthen the assumption that women do not posses leadership qualities. However, there are women who are outstanding in their leadership roles. According to Dickson (2012), the issue of equality is one of the most important characteristic of assertiveness.

My action plan

Having discussed the findings based on the available literature, it becomes imperative to map out a plan, based on my reflections of the module, especially regarding the aspect of assertiveness and training of potential female leaders. Although I do not like taking on the role of a leader, I am, most of the time, assigned responsibilities. As a passive person, I need to prepare myself for the future, especially in the aspect of assertiveness if this is not to create insecurities within myself.


Assertiveness seems to be a significant aspect of leadership; however, it would appear that little or no attention is accorded to the concept or acquiring skills associated with . It is one thing to be a leader and another to be an effective leader. Women in leadership positions have considerable challenges for the singular reason of being women. Exhibiting aggressive, passive or manipulative behaviour will only add to their challenges and the suppression of the male dominant figure of authority. The woman is known to possess a naturally soft, accommodating, friendly and gentle nature. Where a woman leader decides to be domineering, in order to command respect like men, she meets with conflict which is responsible for the unnecessary emotional stress and exhaustion leaders and their staff experience, which can be avoided. If women leaders can express strong feelings, without being aggressive, accept that they are not omnipotent, and compromise, sometimes without insisting on winning all the time, respect the feelings, privacy, and opinions of others, it is most likely that they will have a serene environment to work in, with full support from staff. Whenever people feel supported or acknowledged, there is likely to be advancement and also an indication that a situation has been handled assertively. The power of women, therefore, does not lie in the offices they occupy, nor their aggression, but in their ability to stay on top of the game by being assertive.


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Women In Leadership: The Place Of Assertiveness And Recognition Of Human Rights. (2018, Nov 21). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/women-in-leadership-the-place-of-assertiveness-and-recognition-of-human-rights/

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