The research shows it and everyone has an anecdote: our society doesn’t like women who are assertive, aggressive, direct, or strong willed, even though these characteristics are accepted, even prized, in male leaders. Instead, women are supposed to smile and emphasize communal harmony. Women who don’t fit this “narrow band of acceptable female behavior”are labeled bossy, bitchy, “pushy, brusque, stubborn, and condescending.”
Some recent authors have tried to raise consciousness about this problem, including Tina Fey in Bossypantsand Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In. But the replacement of Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times produced a flurry of discussion. While we may never know the precise details, one feature stood out: she was pushy, competitive, aggressive.
Having read both Bossypants and Lean In I was generally aware of the issue, but hadn’t experienced it myself . . . until about the time the Jill Abramson story broke. I recently had an opportunity to volunteer extensively in an industry I hadn’t worked in before. The project was great and for a while everything went smoothly. But as deadlines loomed, important things weren’t getting done. With practically no other staff to speak of, I eventually made a well reasoned plan and said, we need to do x, y, and z, otherwise we’re in trouble. The project got done on time and to specifications and I was proud of the work.
Then I found out that two significant people on the project thought my day-saving efforts were “bitchy” and, while ultimately appropriate, unacceptable on any future projects. At first I thought I’d done something terrible, but after some soul searching I realized these people would not have responded this way if a man had acted as I had. I remembered how often I’d been told to smile (not something you’d say to a man) and how they had loved me when I was nothing but a servile bucket of sunshine. Having never experienced such behavior in any previous work environment, I’ve become bitter about the whole experience.
But what to do about it? Despite all the recent attention to the bossy/bitchy/pushy problem, I haven’t seen anyone propose a good solution. Raising consciousness is a good start, but will that prevent another experience like mine? I don’t believe the people asking me to smile were consciously being condescending. Would it have helped to point out the behavior? Probably not. And the people telling me I was “bitchy” were doing so in a sincere attempt to help me. They were basically saying: you’re fantastically competent but to work in this industry you need to be a bundle of sunshine at all times. While that’s incredibly sexist, are they wrong in a practical sense?
Time to be depressed . . .