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The "Bitch In The Boardroom" Stereotype: Women Speak Out About Success And Likability

Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, is undoubtedly a mover and shaker. The woman behind Mark Zuckerberg also happens to be the social network’s highest paid exec and has the sort of resume any successful business person (man or woman) would love to have—think chief of staff for the U.S. Treasury and VP of global online sales at Google.

Sandberg’s shaking things up in other ways, too. Outspoken about her status as the working mother of two, Sandberg’s been vocal about using a breast pump during conference calls and leaving the office at 5:30 every day to be home with her family

Most Likely To Succeed, Shhhh

And while it’s clear that she’s deep in the trenches both at home and in the office, Sandberg did say, "There's no such thing as work-life balance. There's work, and there's life, and there's no balance," in an interview for the Makers series from PBS and AOL. 

That may be why, in that same series of interviews, Sandberg confesses that even though she was voted most likely to succeed in high school, she asked a friend on the yearbook staff to remove the reference because it was "uncool" and admits that for women, success and likeability is a trade-off

Et Tu, Oprah?

She’s not alone. Women don’t even like to say they’re ambitious, says journalist Leslie Bennetts, who went so far as to call the drive for corporate success the "Scarlet A" and even found that America’s self-made first black billionaire Oprah Winfrey apparently doesn’t think of herself as a businesswoman.

This self deprecation persists in a time when women are more present in the workplace than ever, when females count for nearly 60 percent of college studentsand, as research in Liza Mundy’s new book The Richer Sex suggests, are becoming breadwinners in greater numbers. Almost 40 percent of working wives bring home more bacon than their husbands.  

The Downside To Killing It

There are and will always be gender stereotypes such as the "big swinging dick" and the "bitch in the boardroom,"  says Erika Napoletano, author of The Power of Unpopular.  So she isn’t sure it’s only women who tend to shrink from success in order to be well liked. "No matter who you are in the world of business, there will be people who find your methods unattractive. That's intimidating for anyone, male or female," she says.

Likewise, "America’s sweetheart," award-winning journalist Katie Couric, believes it wasn’t just her perky femininity that got heads of state talking. "Men have wiles too," she said in one episode of the Makers series, adding that how you treat people "really dictates how well you do in life." 

Don't Insert Emoticon Here

She's quick to listen to detractors, but Rachel Sklar, founder of Change the Ratio, is always amazed by the reaction when she ask a group of women if they've ever been asked to watch their tone —a.k.a. code for aggressive, pushy or bossy —all the negative traits associated with a woman exercising power. 

"There are knowing nods, grimaces, and looks of amazement as they look around and see that this is not an uncommon thing," she says. "Have I been told to watch my tone? Of course. Silly me, I'd forgotten to add the happy smiley face [to the end of this sentence].

Be Honest and Authentic

Digital marketing pioneer Daina Middleton, the global CEO of Performics, says such attitudes make it difficult to be a good woman and a good leader. "I have been given feedback about being strong-willed, speaking my mind, and smart," she says, traits that didn’t always make it into the positive attribute column of her performance evaluations.  

"Assertive or competitive qualities are usually associated with men, and are thought to be essential for successful leaders. But for women, they can be a landmine," says Middleton. Add in what you're wearing, bad hair days, or just looking tired and that distorts the impression even more. 

Middleton does believe there is a cultural change and is taking the reins when she is honest and authentic and doesn't let perception get in the way of making the right decision. "I'm confident enough in my leadership ability to not worry about being liked or popular. That ship sailed a long time ago."  

Don't Be a Victim of "Disease to Please"

Alison Provost has a lot of experience when it comes to solving problems (even when she's the problem). The founder, chairman and CEO of Touchstorm says that some point in her 30s, she learned one lesson the hard way: "I'm going to run with the big boys, I'm going to have to play like one."

When a male peer executive tried to make inroads to take control of their division, someone helped her crack the code on how to "speak guy." Not only did Provost stop answering all her coworker’s questions that would give him a competitive edge, she also picked up a few other tricks about communicating.

"Not every email needs to answered; you have the right to choose whether you want to address it or not. Men think, women feel, so substitute "I think" wherever you're tempted to write "I feel." Men are brief and women fill in all the detail, so keep it short and sweet instead."

Provost also cautions against obsessing about what things mean. "The men around you aren't giving it another thought. Take all the emotion out of your communications." This means a lot more than don't cry at the office, she adds. 

Ask the Toughest Question

Napoletano does admit she’s been called a "bitch" frequently but believes that because there's a distorted view of the difference between being unpopular and not liked. "Unpopular women in business—unpopular business people, period—make decisions that might not ultimately appeal to everyone yet honor and respect the customer. Unlikable business decisions are ones that forget that your customer is the reason you're allowed to to business every day. It's not because you're pretty or you've got the coolest product in Silicon Valley." 

According to Napoletano, the first step is to ask yourself why someone might be moved to hurl something pejorative or demeaning, and that answer may be because that person may be feeling threatened in some way.

On the other hand, Napoletano says, "There are people in this world, both male and female, who are not nice people. And by nice, I mean respectful of others. To me, a bitch is a woman in the workplace who puts her own interests ahead of her team. If you're acting less than respectful towards the people who can help all of you get to where you need to go and if you're not willing to help elevate your team, maybe you are a bitch. And you're the only one who can change that."

Find the Opportunity

Rather than wait for a female corporate culture to eradicate the use of demeaning labels, Napoletano is in favor of taking each incidence as a teaching moment.  

The most important thing to remember each day is that you’re not in business to appeal to everyone, she adds. "Success comes from knowing your audience, and building something they will love. I'd be less concerned with what people are calling me and more concerned with what my customers and colleagues think about the way business is getting done. Those are the people who matter." 

[Image: Carlos E. Santa Maria via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Bernadette Boas

    Amen, women have to stop looking for reasons and excuses for themselves, and often times, the people they claim are demeaning them.

    One point/observation in the article I feel is inaccurately defined: it states “No matter who you are in the world of business, there will be people who find your methods unattractive. That's intimidating for anyone, male or female,” she says.

    I am not sure women (or men) find it intimidating, too many find it hurtful, 'wanting everyone to like them'..lacking confidence to overlook and ignore what naysayers and haters are going to say and do; because no matter what an ambitious, goal seeking individual (women or men) does, they will vomit all over it - because they don't have the same guts, ambitions and vision. It is that simple.

  • Thanks for this article. I was especially interested to read what Janet Napoletano had to say as she's the new president of the UC system and I work at Berkeley.

  • Jeanne Kurasz

    Sadly, any success women make towards being taken seriously or "equal" is often sabotaged by the "weepy" women who use emotions to get what they want.  I've seen too many instances where women, even at the senior level, actually break down into tears when asked to explain a mistake or defend a decision.  Men seem to expect, and accept this behavior more so than that of competency and strength.

  • EBKS

    Great point! I love this article. I'm in my  mid-20s and am currently in a communications management position. I feel that my co-workers tend to err on the side of emotion when I tend to be more pragmatic, strategic and methodical about my work. I've had some people sit and cry in my office, or create public discussions about their frustrations rather than finding solid solutions and plans to fix problems or challenges at hand.

    Results are what matter to me, despite the fact that I may be presumed to be a B****, or "cold" or "unattached."  I consider myself a smart, warm "people person," but it's clear that society (men and some women!) want females to wear emotions on our sleeve so we don't get a leg up as a strategist or opinoin leader in our organizations.

    Even at my young age, I've witnessed this phenomenon. It's crazy frustrating, but I'm glad I've learned the lesson early on so I can take it with me as I purse my future career goals.

  • owlsheadbiz

    I tend to be solution-oriented in my thinking, but I am also a very emotional person. I have learned through experience that to be emotional is not in itself a weakness, and it does not preclude me from coming up with effective, creative, and logical solutions to problems. In fact, I'm known amongst my colleagues and clients for creative problem-solving and resourceful troubleshooting. On the flip side, I like a good cry and/or vent session when I'm upset about something.

    Your comment indicates that you think talking about a problem with a group (focusing on the emotional side of things) and/or crying through frustration means a woman has reached a dead end mentally - that there is no possibility of finding a solution on the other side of her emotions. Perhaps this has been your experience, in which case you must have witnessed some frustrating situations!

    I love a good cry, and I admit I do try to keep it away from the folks who I suspect will judge me as weak for feeling and expressing my emotions. I agree that there is a time and a place. But at the end of the day, I have found that my creativity and clear-thinking are greatly enhanced by self-expression, and that includes my emotions and feelings.

  • Michaela Kennedy

    This article is great, made me laugh out loud. At a conference I attended last February, a number of younger male marketers came up to me and praised me for my enthusiasm, adding that it takes positive energy to succeed. None of the older men (and no women at all) gave me any praise. In fact, a couple of women looked at me when I introduced myself to them and said, "Oh, you're the crazy lady." Then turned their backs without giving me their names. A few old triggers went off - but then I recognized them and remembered the praise from the successful marketers in the room. The last quote is crucial, because whatever anyone's (bad) opinion of me is none of my business. It's the successful colleagues who give the best support. Thanks for this wonderful article!

  • Lisa Rodriguez

    Great article, Lydia! Thank-you for shedding some light on this idea.

    I, too, have been told to watch my tone; I find it mostly due to the brevity and minimally emotional tone of my communication. I don't mind the suggestion I was given, because I know I remain respectful in all e-mails. It's simply not my nature to include emoticons. I guess some people (mostly other women) take it as rude or not nice. I just don't see them as necessary. I'm not here to be nice--I'm here to do the best job I can and as long as respect is in place, the like will come after respect.

    Thanks, again.

  • Linda Bernardi

    A fantastic  article and strongly suggest women and men
    read this.  There are many obstacles that
    women have to face, and in the process many give up and surrender. We have
    plenty of examples of women that do charge forward and change the game. My
    ultimate hope is that women finally realize, we hold the power to change what
    is key for us, not anyone else, either as a CEO, CFO , a board member or

  • Curt Archambault

    An ongoing issue that I don't think will ever be resolved in the workplace. The issue at hand is one around perception...there is the perception of the leader and their is the perception of the follower...either side can take actions to create a better environment. It is all about behaviors...what behavior is the leader exhibiting that gives the perception of being a 'bitch" and what behavior of the follower is resulting in a negative experience with the leader...

  • Brianne Burrowes


    This is a wonderful post and you bring up many solid points. Have you seen the Pew Research Center Study that said 66 percent of women ages 18 to 34 say being successful in a high-paying career or profession is "one of the most important things" or "very important" in their lives? This is up 10 percent from the 2007 study. (Meanwhile, men who identify this as a priority were up only 1 percent from 2007, from 58 to 59 percent.) As an ambassador of women in the workplace, I see this as an exciting time. I'm glad we're gaining the role models to back this up.

    Brianne Burrowes | Founder |

  • Jill Salzman

    Brilliant.  There are so many articles on the web that cover this topic, but I've not yet read a piece that hits the nail right on the head.  “No matter who you are in the world of business, there will be people who find your methods unattractive. That's intimidating for anyone, male or female" -- I could not agree more.  Brava to you for tackling this topic -- you're spot on.

  • Erika Napoletano

    Glad you enjoyed the tidbits in the article, Jill -- I think Lydia did a bang-up job over covering a vast issue with much debate...and many words being thrown around haphazardly (that probably shouldn't be, like "bitch").