Too timid at work? Too aggressive? Speech shares how women's voices can be heard

During Tuesday's Women's Connect event, Dr. Faith Ngunjiri of Concordia will share how to become more assertive, how to deal with the potential negative backlash of said assertiveness, and how to engage in confident, competent workplace communication that gets results.

During Tuesday's Women Connect event, Dr. Faith Ngunjiri will speak on the communication challenges women face in the workplace, which range from being viewed as too aggressive to not assertive enough. / Forum graphic.

When women started flocking to the workplace in the 1970s and '80s, they received mixed messages on how to thrive.

Some career guides advised them to wear blue pantsuits and speak with stereotypically masculine directness and authority. Others suggested they align themselves with a powerful man in the organization , then ask his opinion, flatter him and listen to his ideas with rapt attention.

What a choice. They could play the role of non-threatening sycophant, catering to a man's ego, or they could reject all femininity - as if the very fact of being a woman was something to hide.

No wonder confusion lingers about the most effective way to communicate in the workplace. Now Concordia Associate Professor Faith Ngunjiri hopes to shed some light on the topic.


Ngunjiri, the director of the Lorentzen Center for Faith and Work and a teacher of ethics, will present the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce's Women Connect event from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Tuesday, May 25. Audience members can attend in-person at the Avalon Events Center or via livestream.

"I will share how to become more assertive, how to deal with the potential negative backlash of said assertiveness, and how to engage in confident, competent workplace communication that gets results," says Ngunjuri, who is flying from Nairobi, Kenya, where she's spending her sabbatical, to speak at the Fargo event.

Assertive communication is a complicated issue, impacted by factors like work environment, the particular situation, the communicator's early experiences and the perceptions of the people they're trying to influence.

Dr. Faith Ngunjiri says women have to keep many factors in mind when working to communicate effectively, including situation, work environment, audience and culture. / Special to The Forum.

"Context is really important," Ngunjuri says. "Even if a woman is going to work on themselves, if we don't pay attention to context, we are banging our head against a wall. If you’re assertive in certain contexts, you’re labeled a b-i-t-c-h. In other contexts, it’s what you’re expected to do."

Cultural differences complicate matters

Cultural differences can make the equation even more complex. Since returning to Nairobi, Ngunjiri quickly realized how 18 years in America had honed her assertiveness and communication style.

“Me, with my assertiveness and my apparent Americanness, there are times when I'm sure others were thinking, ‘Why can’t she just pipe down a little bit?’ But if I would act this same way in Fargo, it’s not a big deal.”


Our early experiences also can shape how we communicate. When growing up, Ngunjuri says she didn't realize how differently girls were treated in different families. Some girls were given as many opportunities to study and work as their brothers. Others were made to stay home and take care of the homestead so their brothers could go to school. And over time, Ngunjuri realized families who believed in very separate and traditional gender roles weren't limited to Africa - they were everywhere.

'Up-talking' and overapologizing

Age is another factor. Ngunjuri says most of her young students have experienced a more equitable world than their mothers or grandmothers did, and will insist they don't feel much gender bias. "But when they get into employment, the reality is different," Ngunjuri says. "Once you get in the workplace, the culture is still very masculine."

As an example, Ngunjuri adds, some companies plan late or very early meetings, which create a disadvantage for anyone with children.

While young women don't seem as insecure about speaking their minds, they do have vocal habits that can hold them back. One is the tendency that millennials and Gen Zeds (including males) have toward "uptalking" - raising the intonation of every sentence, as if they're asking questions, Ngunjuri says. This habit can make them appear less credible or confident in the eyes of older colleagues.

A vocal habit that can discredit women of any age is our tendency to apologize - even for things that are outside of our control, Ngunjuri says. One example is saying "I'm sorry to interrupt, but do you have a minute?" even when you have every right to discuss a relevant topic with your supervisor.

When emotions get in the way

Whether it's fair criticism or not, women also constantly fight the belief they're too emotional. A Houston Chronicle blog ticks off numerous ways that women can hold their ground and be heard, which includes maintaining a steady voice and good eye contact when presenting ideas, using facts instead of storytelling to drive home a point, keeping statements concise and avoiding disclaimers ("I may be wrong about this but ...").


Tactics like counting to 10 or four-square breathing (breath in 4 seconds, hold it 4 seconds, breath out 4 seconds, hold it 4 seconds) can help with emotional regulation.

But our biggest asset is self-awareness. "The important thing is that without emotional intelligence, it is really hard to be assertive," Ngunjiri says. "It begins with self-awareness, and without self-awareness, you might not even be noticing that your voice is getting screechy or whiny or that people are looking at you aghast. It's interesting to me how these soft skills need to be connected."

Emotional intelligence can also help us "read the room" and know how to adjust communication styles for different audiences and situations. This doesn't mean challenging anyone who disagrees with our ideas, but it could mean pulling someone aside to speak firmly and openly to them if they continue cutting us off in meetings, marginalizing our contributions or showing outright disrespect to us.

Ngunjiri says it can be helpful to have a buddy at work so each can diplomatically point out to the other if they're apologizing too much or clamming up at meetings. "We have to talk about this stuff openly as much as possible, and involve men where we can, and keep pointing it out when we see this happening," Ngunjiri says. "So if you see a woman trying to assert herself and a dude keeps interrupting her, be an ally and do something about it."

Appropriate assertiveness, self-knowledge, emotional intelligence and a support network can also help us outside of the workplace, whether we're setting limits with kids or standing up to relatives who take advantage of us.

"These are skills we can use everyday," she says.


Learn more about this FM Chamber event at

Tammy has been a storyteller most of her life. Before she learned the alphabet, she told stories by drawing pictures and then dictated the narrative to her ever-patient mother. A graduate of North Dakota State University, she has worked as a Dickinson, N.D., bureau reporter, a Bismarck Tribune feature writer/columnist, a Forum feature reporter, columnist and editor, a writer in NDSU's Publications Services, a marketing/social media specialist, an education associate in public broadcasting and a communications specialist at a nonprofit.
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