bitchy vs. authoritative – guess which one you are, ladies?

by Ask a Manager on June 17, 2010

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This is a post from November 2007 that I’m reprinting now because I’m feeling highly annoyed about this concept.

Management Line reports that a new study finds that “female bosses who are seen as unkind or insensitive are judged as worse managers. People, however, are prepared to overlook the same traits displayed by male managers. In other words, male and female managers are judged by different standards.”

This adds yet another frustrating layer to that already-infuriating chestnut about authoritative women seeming bitchy, while authoritative men seem like strong leaders. I’ll admit that I don’t know how much of this is my own internal hang-up, but as a female boss myself, it’s sometimes in the back of my mind that I might be being perceived as “bitchy” when I take a hard line with someone, when a man doing the same thing would just be perceived as resolute and authoritative. (I can also think of a couple of occasions in the past where just being friendly and empathetic — stereotypically “feminine” traits — has led some men to take me less seriously. I don’t think that’s happened in a few years though, which might be a result of me becoming ancient and withered.)

If I have to be seen as either the bitch who gets things done or the pushover who doesn’t, I’ll take “bitch who gets things done.” It’s infuriating that it has to be a choice, of course; I doubt many men are out there worrying that they’re seen as insufficiently sweet.

Related post: On balls and lack thereof

{ 29 comments }

TheLabRat June 17, 2010 at 4:57 am

For whatever it's worth, bitchy and resolute/authoritative mean the same thing to me. Which is to say that bitchy isn't necessarily an insult and the others aren't necessarily a compliment.

Aubrey June 17, 2010 at 5:16 am

You know what though? I still think that a lot of women think that they need to be extraordinarily tough, unfeeling, and yes, "bitchy," to excel in the workplace. There's this idea that women can't be sensitive…and let's face it, many women are more sensitive than men…which can be used for good! I agree that women shouldn't be pity-seeking, weep-at-the-drop-of-a-hat pushovers in the workplace, but it is GOOD to show some empathy and understanding (when warranted). And, if I may be so bold, judging by your management style, AAM, I'd say that you are reasonable and empathetic, but able to put your foot down when necessary, as well.

It's all about balance.

Annabelle September 27, 2013 at 12:44 am

Perfect response!

clobbered June 17, 2010 at 6:03 am

Amaze your friends and confuse your enemies by being bitchy OR sensitive… depending on what the situation actually requires. There's a thought.

I mean come on, it's not a binary choice.

And anyway, it is amazing how many men think they are projecting "authoritative" when they are actually projecting "pig-headed".

Waldo June 17, 2010 at 11:58 am

I'm sorry, but I've worked for male managers who were bitchy, and female managers who were authoritative. This is what I expect out of a manager:
-Take in the situation (by listening, observing, or otherwise absorbing),
-Evaluate and then make a decision,
-Provide direction and instruction,
-Review, follow-up, and modify as necessary,
-Rinse, Repeat.

I may not be typical, but along with the ability to make decisions and be generally reasonable, that's all that I need from a manager.

Anonymous June 17, 2010 at 12:01 pm

The standards you are seeing are confirmed in gender language studies.

Dr. Deborah Tannen is one of the big gender study linguists. Her book You Just Don't Understand gently brings up some of the differences society makes in judging people in positions based on their gender. The judgment of female vs. male bosses is one of her examples.

Anonymous June 17, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Strong authoritative women are seen as bitches and strong authoritative men are seen as dicks, either way it's not a positive. I'd rather be seen as a dick (or a bitch) who gets the job done and takes care of business than someone who doesn't.

Charles June 17, 2010 at 12:45 pm

For what it is worth – I think that part of the perception is really about having just ONE word for bitchy women but so many different words for men who have the same trait; e.g., jerk, bastard, jack@ss, prick, etc.

But also, I'm reminded of the time a female boss wanted me to go look for a male co-worker in the restroom. When I told her that I wasn't going to do that she threw a fit; walked into the men's room herself looking for him. A male boss would be sued (or criminally charged) for doing the same thing. So, yea, sometimes the moniker fits (both genders)

P.S. There also something to be said for being "ancient and withered."

Anonymous June 17, 2010 at 1:49 pm

I'm caught in the middle. Subordinates (an all female staff by the way) have not only reported me to my manager for being "insensitive" to their feelings when they are seeking sympathy for a situation that they want to be off from work for, but also as being a push over when they are the ones left pulling up the slack for the person who left because, say, their dog died. I can't win!

Jeez…just come to work and do your job ladies!

Mike June 17, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I appreciate this post for the simple fact that it reminds many of us men about something we simply never have to worry about.

Outside of posts like this, what do you think can be done to help change this double standard?

@clobbered – Or are simply bullies.

Anonymous June 17, 2010 at 4:36 pm

Oh, I completely empathize with this post! I'm not a manager yet at my current job, but I've had male and female managers in the past, and the men can "get away with" much more and just be seen as tough, while women are tentative about speaking their minds in order to avoid the dreaded "bitch" label.

I'm not one of those people who sees sexism around every corner–I worked for a man who everyone in the office saw as a sexist, and I never noticed until he literally screamed at a woman to sit down and shut up in a company meeting while she was calmly expressing an opinion that differed from his. (He was laid off shortly thereafter)

But I definitely do see this particular phenomenon in the workplace and elsewhere. Women are constantly walking a tightrope. The acceptable emotional range is very narrow if you don't want to be a "wimpy girl" or a "bitch." Angry women are seen as out of control and ineffective, while angry men are seen as determined and authoritative. But women can't be too sensitive or empathetic, either, as you pointed out, especially in an industry like sales.

Anonymous June 17, 2010 at 5:29 pm

"Strong authoritative women are seen as bitches and strong authoritative men are seen as dicks…"

The above may be true. But the dick gets the promotion every time. The bitch gets told that she has to change b/c people can't work with her.

Anonymous June 17, 2010 at 5:51 pm

This is 100% right. Women who are NOT dicks are bitches are perceived as such simply because they are namby pambys. Even by women who consider themselves feminists!

Kara June 17, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Waldo, yeah, that's what you want from a manager. But women are especially prone to being seen as "bitches" when they are dealing with a problematic employee, someone who requires a lot of correction and maybe even termination. That's when you really see how women get perceived differently than men do, even though they're acting basically the same.

FrauTech June 17, 2010 at 5:58 pm

So timely. Just today I was talking to a male coworker about how your title affects how people treat you. And then I said I was taking some other woman's advice that oftentimes it's all about attitude not title. And he goes "oh no, don't be a b@#$ like her!" She's the sweetest, nicest woman ever. Yes when she asks for something she asks for it. But she's positive, encouraging, and optimistic to everyone I know. Of course the guy corrected himself and said "well, I can't speak, I'm an asshole" but I thought it was interesting his brain went directly there. I notice when I don't work directly with people they think i am "nice" but as soon as we are on a project together I am a "bitch" and it is "where is this requirement coming from, who is your boss" questions that don't get asked of my male colleagues.

BossLady June 17, 2010 at 6:06 pm

I too am often upset by this type of double standard, which I agree, exists.

I do think there is change coming. I have seen cases where male managers who go over the top with aggressiveness (vs. assertiveness) can be labeled as out of control. I think in this case, like many others, we focus on the women and what they need to do to change this, but really how we measure and rate our male leaders is just as important.

My coping strategy, and you need them in this world: I usually just try to walk through a thought experiment when I experience getting slapped with the "bitch" moniker. Would one of my male counterparts doing the same thing result in the same negative feedback? (With different language likely.) If not, the person is wrong and I feel OK knowing its them, not me. If yes, well, then maybe I was either out of line or maybe I am just doing my job of requiring my staff to do thiers, which not everyone is always crazy about, and that makes them say and do things that in the end make them look worse than me.

I think senior managers need to walk themselves through these types of thought experiments when dealing with those situaitons, and I think the best of them usually do.

In any case, I think an important part of being BossLady is to keep perspective and calm. People don't like being challenged, their stereotypes, their work ethic, nothing. And being an authoritative woman can really rock some folks' worlds! Your job is to challenege them to be better, faster, smarter in all areas. That in itself I found causes some angst, no matter the gender.

Anonymous June 17, 2010 at 10:07 pm

I can tell you one thing I've learned in the last 20 years of managing – the balance y'all are seeking doesn't exist because it can't without compromise.

If you're being paid to manage, manage with respect for the individual and outcome but mostly, be yourself and get the job done. And if someone calls you something inappropriate for *doing your job*, deal with them quickly and effectively. And if the behavior doesn't turn around, manage the problem out.

btw.. I'm a responsible bitch and damn proud of my staff and our results. Even prouder that my bitchy, get the job done attitude saved my team from several rounds of layoffs!

MrsPost June 18, 2010 at 12:22 am

I actually had this happen in a review once. I called out the manager. I think he said I was pushy.

"Would you use that same word if I was a man?"

He paused and that part of my review was changed.

Aswin Kini June 18, 2010 at 11:46 am

Well, I have worked under both male and female managers. Based on my short professional experience (5 years), I don't find a damn difference between the authoratitive attitude of a male/female manager, I have had issues with both managers, and also some good experiences.

In the end, as an employee, I only care about how well you treat your employees, not whether you are a MALE/FEMALE.

Annabelle September 27, 2013 at 12:33 am

It wasprobably only changed to ‘obnoxious’ ‘obstinate’ or some masculine variation. Whatever you call it, they didnt jive with your behavior. I dont give a damn if youre black, white, purple, man, woman, transgendered, whatever. A good mngr dooes just what waldo said, hears people out, then makes a decision. Doesnt waste time, nor rush. Leads by example. Etc.

Annabelle September 27, 2013 at 12:40 am

That reply was meant for mrs post. Aswin you make great points.

Rebecca June 18, 2010 at 1:57 pm

I almost always get labeled as a bitch from day one, which is fine with me. It's usually forgotten once it's discovered that the bitch is the only one who knows what she's doing and gets the work done.

Annabelle September 27, 2013 at 12:36 am

Since when do you have to be a bitch to get things done? Maybe youre a bitch, And a person who gets things done. I know plenty of bitches who are lazy. One does not necessitate the other. Im Not a bitch, have Never been called a bitch, and I get stuff done!

SeeSide June 21, 2010 at 2:02 pm

Not so subtle is the stereotype that at some level, all women should either be motherly or inconsequential. Authoritative/unkind/insensitive is Dad-ish and it throws them off. I'm not surprised some men don't take you seriously when friendly/empathetic – years of training blowing off their non-assertive Mom (just wait til your father gets home!). Boys!

Anonymous June 24, 2010 at 8:11 pm

We're all being unecessarily feminine by caring at all what the people at work think of us. You don't have to be liked by everyone.

Annabelle September 27, 2013 at 12:38 am

I know plenty of men who worry what others think. People are people. Maybe lead by example and stop enforcing ridiculous stereotypes. You probably just dont know very many people beyond a surface level.

Ms. Independent June 25, 2010 at 5:18 pm

This is the case with non-management employees, too. If you are not all bubbly-happy-cutesy, you get labeled "unpleasant"–even if you are actually perfeclty polite and professinoal with everyone, all the time.

Seems you have to be a slack-jawed, smiling idiot in order not to be seen as a threat, and I refuse to be such!

Anonymous July 7, 2010 at 1:59 am

I think a lot of it is in the delivery and keeping things on an even keel. As a female manager I have had to manage people 'off the bus' and out of my business unit numerous times (I have a low tolerance for incompetence); I make use of my feminine side by listening to them and making an effort to assess the situation from their perspective, but in the end I make a decision and follow through without unnecessary drama. Calm and direct. My (male) boss has coached all the drama out of this girl ;-) if they still think I'm a bitch well so be it, definitely not keeping me up at night. I'd rather be the bitch who only keeps performing contributors than be the lame man-manager who is so afraid of other people's emotions that he'd rather have dead wood on his team than deal with the effort of managing them out.

Anonymous August 12, 2010 at 8:00 am

Rebecca you are so right with your comment. I am also the bitch. I currently have a male temp staff member who is just about to depart our company (thankfully)who thinks I am a bitch. Guess what… the rest of my staff don't, nor do the boss' above me. I sleep well at night

Kawi

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