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Are confident women bitchy? (Or, do you care about how you’re percieved at work?)

Categories: Career Talk, Working Women Issues


woman-with-megaphone.jpgI spoke to a reporter this morning who is doing an article about women entrepreneurs. (Luckily she is not doing an article about mompreneurs because, well, you know how I feel about that.) One of the issues we touched on was how women are perceived in the business world. I told her my stories–which you can read here and here. But then I said to this very nice woman that I’ve developed some strong opinion about this and I’d like to lay it out:

  • Women who are strong and confident are often perceived as aggressive and bitchy
  • Women who are nice and collaborative are often perceived as weak
  • Once we have kids, many assume that our mom identity IS the entirety of who we are
  • Women are too often each other’s worst enemies (we don’t network as well, we don’t help each other well, we are often catty)

This is all true, in my experience and according to some experts. But second to waving a magic wand and changing these ingrained perceptions and biases in the workplace, the only solution I can come up with is to try to not care and push ahead.

Now I pride myself on being a practical person in life. I try not to give advice that I don’t think can be put into practice and I dream but back up my dreams with bullet points of steps I am going to take. So I don’t kid myself by thinking that it’s easy to ignore the perceptions people might have of us at work. A few years ago I worked at a small technology companies–there were 2 women there, besides me, and 5 men. One day I overheard the two other women talking about how bitchy I was. It hurt, it made me doubt myself, it made question whether in fact, I was bitchy. (I didn’t change, partly because I don’t think I can change who I am and mostly because I disagreed with their assessment.)

But the alternative to ignoring these perceptions isn’t practical. If we try to be nicer, we’ll be considered weak. If we try to be stronger, someone out there will think we’re bitchy. We can’t win that way.

Here’s another unsolicited opinion I shared with the reporter: I think that often women judge women much harsher than men. When the two women called me bitchy the guy from the company with whom they were talking disagreed. “Sure, she’s tough, but I don’t think bitchy,” he said. This skill we have of undermining each other… I wish that’s something we could get rid of. Because it’s not helping remove the perceptions, just perpetuate them.

OK, another rant over. Tell me what you think–do you consider how you’re perceived in the workplace? In your job have you come across these stereotypes or do you think I am off the mark? Do you think strong women are considered bitchy at work and nice ones weak?

Sound off, I really want to hear what you think. (And for a different take on this subject, check out Kathy’s recent post over at Who Stole My Stapler?)

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8 comments so far...

  • I think women sabotage other women because they’re, well, jealous. Why else is there ANY REASON to talk about someone else, unless you’re looking to make yourself feel better?

    To be honest, I almost ruined my company by worrying about people not liking me. I learned that it is more important to be respected for being fair than to be liked. That isn’t to say, however, that I haven’t had my feelings hurt, but I have my pity party, sulk a bit, and then get over it and move on!

    I think true bitchiness is a matter of style. There are ways to be strong without being a bitch. The key is to be true to yourself and if you can honestly perform a gut-check and believe you’re not being a bitch, then blow off those who might say it behind your back (which is a cheap shot, anyway) and keep pressing ahead!

    Julie Lenzer Kirk  |  November 29th, 2007 at 10:15 am

  • I agree with Julie, also another reason people in general will label you as ‘bitchy’ instead of ’strong’ is that they don’t like what you are saying. period.

    If it was a man saying the same thing they wouldn’t like it either but we don’t really have a name that is as commonly used for a man, do we? Though I have heard a lot of men called ‘idiot’ when they make an unpopular decision but unlike many women, men don’t really seem to care and if they do they don’t really let others know, they are more apt to say “really? What part of my decision did you not agree with?” and take the emotional component out of it bringing the focus back to the topic. I hope this happens with women soon as well. Unfortunately the label of ‘bitchy’ conjures up many emotions for both sides and perhaps makes a bigger issue out of a smaller misunderstanding.

    Kate  |  November 29th, 2007 at 12:37 pm

  • I just was recently reviewed by my female boss and was told that my confidence is threatening to others on the team. And that I needed to “be nicer.” I have a really hard time believing that my male counterparts would ever be told to be more nice. And I really feel that it is SHE who is threatened by my performance and not the rest of the team.

    The way I see it is that I am doing everything right. It’s a man world and I need to compete like a man to get ahead. I’m sure I’ve been called a bitch behind my back, but I’m not going to focus on it. If this company doesn’t value my drive and performance, I’ll find another one that will. I can’t change who I am and frankly, I don’t think that is what she is really asking for either.

    BirdieRoark  |  November 29th, 2007 at 2:57 pm

  • Speaking as the weak, nice woman, I’d love to be stronger. There have been times when I’ve stood up for my work, my opinion, and I’m sure I’ve come off as a bitch, but I didn’t care a bit. When I’m doing what’s right, it really doesn’t matter what other people think, when it’s what’s right for everyone else or just for me. Other people’s opinions don’t change right and wrong.

    So why, with successful strength on my side, am I still primarily weak? It takes a lot for me to have an opinion. Life is filled with gray areas. I want to KNOW that I’m right, doing the good thing. So I go with the crowd unless the issue is black and white. (Like whether or not I need to be paid for my work, whether or not you said you’d do ‘x’ as part of the deal) And then I don’t back down. It never occurs to me to care what people think once I’ve made up my mind. Makes it difficult to be a team player. And yes, I work best alone. Or just being told what to do. Let me make decisions just for me, or abide by the decisions I’ve made. Period.

    I realize this isn’t very helpful. Sorry.

    Flea  |  November 30th, 2007 at 1:53 am

  • It has been my (very frustrating) experience that being accommodating hardly ever works, especially when you’re the boss. In trying to run my company, i was really invested in the model of creating a supportive team environment; valuing everyone’s opinions; having open discussions and remaining flexible to everyone’s needs. In the end, it turns out I expected everyone to be as invested as I was and to be as responsible in their time and tasks, which did not always happen. There was the perception of my being weak or indecisive or not knowing what to do, work was not getting done, the degree of flexibility and freedom I allowed seemed to make the work itself less important. I began to understand why the bosses I had had behaved in the way that they did. Ideally I would love to expect the best of everyone I work with, but sometimes they don’t expect it of themselves and there are plenty of people looking for the opportunity to do as little as possible and to complain along the way. So I am turning up the intolerant quotient and being les accommodating, caring less what other people need; and while it is a philosophical departure for me, it is a better model for the company.

    On the Bitchy part:
    I think it is true that the perception of strength in women is skewed into ‘bitchiness’ I have often found that being direct and straightforward is uncomfortable for both men and women of my acquaintance. Male to male interactions are built in this way, but female to female interactions tend to be fraught with competition for attention, subtle (and not so subtle) attempts at manipulation of people and situations. female male interactions are so laden with sexual politics that I have found many males confused about how to interact with me since I do not flirt, am not particularly demure and would like to have actual conversations without posturing.
    Its true that if it were a male making the same decisions or having a similar interaction, it would be perceived as strength and for the most part as a good character trait. in the end, as far as we have come, somewhere deep in the social fabric is an unspoken expectation of ‘female behavior’. On the other hand, it is also true that knowing this, many women feel it necessary to overcompensate by being ‘tougher’ and ‘more ruthless’ than their male counterparts. It comes out of the mindset of knowing that you are a minority, knowing what the perceptions of you are and being under constant pressure not only to prove that you are as good but that you are a thousand times better. It is also true that ‘power’ women are often impatient with and/or dismissive of other women who have made different choices or who exhibit a different set of behaviors. A friend once asked me to write a definition of a true women. I laughed. I thought that the idea of the women’s movement was that there was not supposed to be a definition. there was supposed to be the freedom to make the best and most informed choice about what you wanted our life to be. We are not all required to do and be the same, what we are required to do is to ensure that we are independent enough to be self-sufficient no matter the circumstances and that means different things to different people. But we do categorize each other..i think it is, sadly, a very human tendency to try to create hierarchy and constantly figure out how compete….

    As a rule, I work great in groups, but only when it is a group of equally opinionated, forthright individuals who are not intimidated by each other and are mutually respectful each other’s role, contribution and expertise.. talk about living in a dream world.

    DancingMama  |  December 1st, 2007 at 11:11 am

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