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

If you’re shrinking from success in order to be well liked, some of America’s most prominent women have some very useful advice for you.

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 students
and, 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]

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.