Why There Are So Few Liz Lemons: Assertiveness Doesn’t Pay For Women


I love Liz Lemon on 30 Rock. Played by Tina Fey, she is the head writer of the fictional, Tracy Morgan Show. Her position puts her in one many women find themselves in at work; high responsibility, middling influence, and tactical rather than strategic activities. She is there to get the job done, with no back talk.

But this rarely happens, hence the fun of the show. Liz is seldom without an opinion or a witty reflection on the state of affairs at 30 Rock. The other characters on the show could not survive without her. She is the foil to Jack Donaghy’s arrogance, Tracy Morgan’s narcissism, and Jenna Maroney’s insecurity. Messy in most aspects of her life, she is easily forgiven because she is so honest and so very funny.

But in real offices, there are few Liz Lemons. Her level of candor and assertiveness is not welcomed. Why is this so?

Two researchers recently explained to The Wall Street Journal the penalty women pay for assertiveness at work. They looked at 71 studies testing reactions to people who behave assertively and found that women “were penalized for direct, explicit, forms of assertiveness such as negotiating for a higher salary or asking for a neighbor to turn down music.” This penalty did not apply to men.

Researchers call this “emotional inequality” and it has a price. A 2015 study conducted by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield of VitalSmarts found “women’s perceived competency drops by 35% and their perceived deserved compensation by $15,088 when they are assertive or forceful.” Grenny offers context around why this happens:

“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.”

Liz would roll her eyes at that statement, but most women can’t do that. In fact, smiling after being told there will be no pay raises or that your office will be moving to a city two hours away is the only acceptable response. This is hard to stomach. Making women feel as if they have no agency or control at work is detrimental to their well-being. Worse, intimidating them if they do speak up is the height of cowardice. Workplaces with this type of culture can’t expect to hold onto capable female workers for long.

Liz once said, “I will not calm down! Women are allowed to get angrier than men about double standards.” This rings true to me, even if her logic is a bit off. I really wish we had more Liz Lemons around.