Should It Matter That People Think “Tough” Women are Bitches?

26 Jan

The other day my husband told me about a career personality test that he did for his work. The test is designed to determine your best and worst traits so you can learn to work better with your co-workers and grow personally. While his results said the things that we expected – he is a hard worker, is a perfectionist, isn’t good at delegating, etc. – one thing jumped out at me. The test told him that at times he could come across as harsh, judgmental, and critical of those he works with when they don’t do things the way he wants them done. Basically the test told him that he had a tendency to come across as MEAN. We laughed at the results as if it were no big deal. This got me thinking, a man who tells it like it is can be seen as a hard worker or passionate about his job, but a woman who does the same  thing is seen as a bitch. Why is this? Why are women always expected to be the nice ones?

Just as these thoughts were running through my mind, I came across an article by Geri Stengel entitled Being Tough Isn’t the Same as Being a Bitch. In the article Liz Elting, co-CEO of TransPerfect says, “No one likes to be thought of as a ‘bitch,'” but if “you want everyone to like you, you will have a hard time doing what is necessary in hard times.” Gayle Brandel, CEO of Professionals for Non Profits, says that women don’t want to be seen as nasty or mean, and this in turn results in women being indirect, unclear, or indecisive. Stengel then says that it is time to redefine the way people perceive women and the terms used to describe them. Stengel says that “tough” is not a synonym for “bitchy” or “mean,” and “indirect” is not a synonym for being nice and is most certainly NOT a good management tool. AMEN!

While this article made me feel happy, it was a little disappointed that men were not in the article. I would like to know what men think about women who are “tough” at work. Do they consider the “tough” woman to be “tough” or a “bitch?” My bet is that would choose the latter, which kind of bothers me. But then I wondered if their opinion really matters at all? Should women in high power positions care if people think they are a bitch ?

According to a study at Stanford and George Mason University, the traits exhibited by successful managers were confidence, assertiveness, and dominance, but when those traits were exhibited by women they tended to be less successful. Researcher Olivia O’Neil said that women face a big challenge in the workplace because if they are seen behaving in a “stereotypical male way, they damage their chances of promotion, even though these traits are synonymous with successful managers.” It seems to me that no matter how a woman acts at work she is criticized. If a woman comes across as softer, gentler, or nicer she is often told to be more assertive and aggressive. But a woman who is assertive and aggressive is often told that she is a bitch and that she needs to tone it down. According to O’Neil, confident, assertive women are seen as more capable than the nice women, but those confident, assertive women are also often categorized as being socially inept and unliked by their peers.

SO when can a woman really win? If she is nice she is a pushover who will likely never be able to manage others and manage her own business, but if she is mean she is unliked, and therefore, loses the ability to be promoted. O’Neil suggests that women need to study those around them to determine how others are perceiving them and change the way they act depending on the situation. While I understand that there are times where an aggressive woman needs to be more ladylike (like when she is out with a client) and when a “nice” girl needs to be more assertive (like when telling her subordinates what she expects out of them), this seems like so much work that is is exhausting to think about!

I wished we lived in a time where a woman could act like herself at work and get promoted because she is a good, hard worker – not because she is “nice.” Conversely, I think that a woman should be able to make a tough decision and not be considered a “bitch.” But we don’t live in that time, so women either have to stick to their guns and act how they want to act or they have to adapt to a particular situation. In my opinion I would rather be seen as a being a “bitch” than being seen as too nice. At least the bitchy women can run a business and make tough decisions. Sure, some people might talk behind their back, but that happens regardless of whether she is considered a bitch or not. If women continue to be worried about what others think of them in the workplace they will never get ahead and will never be the CEO of a company.

Do you think you are perceived as being a “nice” girl or a “tough” girl? What are some of the challenges you have faced with this stereotype?

2 Responses to “Should It Matter That People Think “Tough” Women are Bitches?”

  1. Whitney from OC January 26, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

    For me, this was a very thought-provoking post. We have all walked out of meetings with women of authority and pondered their “it” factor. I wouldn’t describe one successful woman that i know as “nice.” Most of the CEO-types that I have observed would likly be described as “bitches”…… EXCEPT that they all have one thing in common–an impressive sense of humor. They are direct and tough, but have mastered the ability to come in at the right moment with the appropriate one-liner. They can hold their own in the board room with the good old boys because they are witty. Humor shows intelligence and confidence. It can also be used to set the tone or disarm a conversation. In one on one settings, i’ve felt that it shows the woman in authority doesn’t take herself too seriously either. For me, its easier to work on my sense of humor than to try and not care what people think of me. We are only human and its hard not to care!

    • Working Wifey January 27, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

      Thanks for your post! I never thought about it that way, but I think you are absolutely right. Those women that have the toughness necessary to get ahead plus a sense of humor do have a leg up. And you are absolutely right, everyone does care what others think of them, especially in the professional setting.

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