Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

4 minute read

Strong Female Lead

The End Of "Bitchy": Addressing Stereotypes Of Women At Work

Women's communication styles are judged more critically than men. Why does this problem persist and how can we fix it?

[Photo: Flickr user Bob Mical]

Last year I was honored at a dinner celebrating my career as founder and president of a thriving communications firm. Employees, clients, family, and friends praised my accomplishments. It felt wonderful.

But then toward the end of those remarks, a woman friend took the mic from the MC and announced: "I have known Judith longer than any of you have, and she is the most aggressive woman I ever met." I looked at her aghast, wondering why she had said this about me—and why she had even thought this.

During those moments when we are showing our strongest selves, women often are hit with ugly, critical comments. We are called "aggressive," "bossy," and "bitchy." Senior women I work with report they are at times labelled "ball buster" and "ice queen." And it’s not only men who apply these terms. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd compared Hilary Clinton to the Snow Queen in Disney’s Frozen because, Dowd claimed, both lack the warmth people expect (of a woman!).

Women everywhere need to combat these stereotypes that suggest there is something wrong with being the strong, confident women we have every right to be.

Why The Sterotypes In The First Place?

All these negative labels originate in the fact that women were brought up to be "nice girls." We grow up being encouraged to be cordial and pleasing. Boys, by contrast, are told to stand out. They’re praised when they are competitive, outspoken, and even combative.

This differentiation continues into adulthood. Women are expected to fit in and not challenge others. And too often we accept these terms. If we disagree with someone in the boardroom, we stay silent because we don’t want to make someone else look bad. We go along with these stereotypes, and reinforce the expectations others have of us. But that behavior does not serve us well. It reinforces the impression that women should be soft spoken—and weaker than men.

It’s when we defy those stereotypes—when we are strong, confident, and assertive—that we encounter those harsh labels. In fact, it is during the moments of our greatest confidence and self-assertion that we often get pushback and are labelled as "aggressive."

How can we combat these stereotypes and break the spell they cast on us? I’d suggest four ways.

1. Reclaim The Labels

Worrying about being labeled bossy or aggressive will not serve you well. If you fear being labeled in this way you might lose some of those great qualities that are rightfully yours. So rise above it….don’t worry about what labels others might pin on you. There is no need to "Ban Bossy." Just don’t give such labels power.

2. Don’t Give Them Power

Your first instinct when called a name might be to lash back. Avoid that first response. When you react with anger, emotion, or frustration, or when you sulk or go silent, you are giving power to your accuser. You’re saying, they’ve "gotten to you." Reacting with anger gives others power over us. Just think of it, when you react, you are not acting, you are re-acting. Your actions are shaped by someone else.

3. Be Confidently Assertive

Every situation is different, but in general, you can combat these labels by confidently affirming your right to present your ideas. Think through what you will say before you say it. Get right to the point. And confidently assert yourself when challenged.

I once worked with a woman who went to her boss to share her views with him. She didn’t agree with him about an approach he was taking to a customer situation, and she told him why. In response, he said, "You are one ballsy bitch." After catching her breath, she replied, "At least you heard me." It takes courage to combat stereotypes. But we need to exercise that courage if we are to change the way others view us—and, indeed, the way we view ourselves.

4. Educate Your Daughters And Sons

As parents we have a huge opportunity to change stereotypes. Let’s bring up our daughters to be confidently assertive; encourage them to think for themselves, speak clearly and confidently, and know their worth. When they speak in a loud voice, don’t "shush" them. Let’s also educate our sons to believe that women can be strong and confident, and that men can show their softer side. Raise children that bury these older stereotypes.

These four strategies will enable you to combat stereotypes and hold your own. And the good news is that over time, attitudes are shifting and will continue to shift. These stereotypes will disappear if we refuse to play to them.

Judith Humphrey lives in Toronto and is founder of The Humphrey Group, a premier leadership communications firm. Her latest book, Taking the Stage: How Women Can Speak Up, Stand Out, and Succeed (Jossey-Bass, 2014) is available in bookstores and from on-line booksellers. Follow her on Twitter @judith_humphrey or at www.thehumphreygroup.com