The Double Standard At Work: Walking The Tightrope Between “Bimbo” and “Bitch”

The Double Standard

Let’s face it, we all know that there is a double standard. Men can get away with being strong, even aggressive in a way that women simply can’t (not without being called a you-know-what, of course).

So many women take a more passive approach – you know what I mean, volunteering to take on more work (even when your plate is full), not being able to say “no,” apologizing for things that weren’t your fault, starting sentences with “maybe I”m wrong, but…” These are just a few of the ways we women undermine ourselves at work.

Problem is, research shows that when women choose the above passive approach, we don’t make as much money or get promoted as often as men. But aggressive behavior is far less acceptable in a woman than a man.

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Assertive vs. Aggressive

Many people will tell you that the answer is for women to learn to be “assertive” rather than aggressive. Assertive is that sweet spot between aggressive and passive. Problem is, my research and even a personal experiment I conducted (more on that later) shows that even assertive behavior is often perceived as aggressive when it’s coming from a woman, particularly in certain situations.

Research by Catalyst, a non-profit research group who studied gender stereotypes, indicates that no matter how women choose to lead, they are perceived as ‘never just right.'”

What’s more… “if women business leaders act consistent with gender stereotypes, they are considered too soft. If they go against gender stereotypes, they are considered too tough.” [May 10, 2009 Backlash: Women Bullying Women at Work by Mickey Meece]

It’s like were constantly walking on a tightrope between “Bit**” and “Sucker.” What’s an ambitious woman to do?

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The Bitch & The Ditz

Clinton vs Palin

If you consider the presidential race from last November, you’ll see how the duality played out very publicly.

Amanda Fortini wrote an article for New York Magazine about the election called The Bitch & The Ditz: How the “Year of the Woman” Actually Set Women Back.

In it she discusses how: “In the grand Passion play that was this election, both Clinton and Palin came to represent – and, at times, reinforce – two of the most pernicious stereotypes that are applied to women: the bitch and the ditz…. On the national political stage and in office buildings across the country, women regularly find themselves divided into dualities that are the modern equivalent of the Madonna-whore complex: the hard-ass or the lightweight, the battle-ax or the bubblehead, the serious, pursed-lipped shrew or the silly, ineffectual girl.”
(New York Magazine, November 2008)

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The Higher We Go…
Woman breaking through ceiling
Part of the whole Clinton/Palin dichotomy is related to something called “surplus visibility.”

A study of women doctors in academe found that the higher women went, the fewer there were, which meant they were ever-more exceptional by their mere presence on the academic scene, so they were more visible to the point of inviting extra-critical scrutiny.

The article posits that while the additional visibility represents an opportunity, “living in a ‘glass house’ with no room for error is more often a problem.”

(How The Snow Woman Effect Slows Women’s Progress, by Mary Ann Mason, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 16, 2009)

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The Dirty Little Secret

There’s a general belief floating around that the double standard has arisen because men are the ones who can’t handle “strong” or “assertive” women. Meanwhile, the dirty little secret out there is that often it’s actually other women who have a particularly difficult time dealing with assertive women.

Of course, it could all be part of the same double standard. Both men and women have, after all, been similarly socialized to view assertive behavior as less acceptable in a woman than in a man. However, that double standard may only be one part of the equation. The other piece is that women are often harder on each other than they are on men.

When I broach this subject, sometimes I encounter resistance: “I’ve had great experiences with women bosses” or “I’ve found that women mentor and nurture each other.” But more often than not I hear emphatic agreement, followed by horror stories of jealousy, backstabbing, lying and gossiping among women at work.

A recent New York Times article covered the topic in a story called Women Bullying Other Women.

“It’s probably no surprise that most [workplace] bullies are men, as a survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute, an advocacy group, makes clear. But a good 40 percent of bullies are women. And at least the male bullies take an egalitarian approach, mowing down men and women pretty much in equal measure. The women appear to prefer their own kind, choosing other women as targets more than 70 percent of the time.”

In Tripping The Prom Queen: The Truth About Women And Rivalry, Susan Shapiro Barash comes to a similar conclusion after conducting 500 one-on-one interviews: “Although we’ve moved into the workplace and the public arena as never before, we tend to ignore men when it comes to competing, focusing our rivalry almost entirely on each other.”

Sadly, her other major finding was that most women won’t admit it.

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Contradictions, Confusion & Conflict

Nice Girls Cover BookI personally undertook an experiment while reading Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel. In the book, she advises women to strengthen our language and positions to gain respect. Her points made a lot of sense and I started to implement many of them.

I became aware of when I was using “hedging” language in my speech and my emails. Instead of using “I” statements about what “I” thought or “I” felt, I instead focused on what the situation needed and spoke in the 3rd person, with facts and figures leading my reasoning.

Things were going rather well with many of my clients (particularly the male ones). However, after a couple of weeks, one of the women in a group of women I was working with on a project asked me if I was angry about something. I was surprised. She said the tenor of my emails and comments seemed “upset” of late.

With that group, not only didn’t my experiment work, it backfired. And I think I know why. Women have probably evolved such “hedging language” as a way to soften disagreements and introduce opposing points of view safely. If you take away that language altogether, you risk being viewed as too assertive or aggressive.

In this particular case, we as a group were already disagreeing about fundamental issues and the situation had gotten touchy. My sudden change of communication style struck a nerve.

Volumes and volumes of advice exist on what to do about the above double standards, gender stereotypes, misperceptions and issues. Problem is, much of it is contradictory and requires an enormous amount of self-awareness, discipline and sensitivity to others’ reactions.

The simple fact is:

  • We’re told to speak up and be more assertive, but then not to speak too loudly or get too intense, because it will turn people off.
  • We’re told to smile and be friendly, but don’t smile inappropriately because then we won’t be taken seriously.
  • We’re told it’s important to be a good listener but if we spend too much time listening, others will think us weak and passive.
  • We’re told to be more decisive and stop soliciting everyone’s opinion all the time, but then we’re told that no one likes bossy women at work.

Ultimately, how do we know what to do?

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Some (Almost) Universal Advice

Here are a few choice bits of advice about how to communicate more powerfully and effectively that are pretty universal and contention-free.

#1 Don’t Be A Babbling Brooke
Women often ramble on, particularly when nervous. Try to keep your phrasing succinct and focused and don’t go off on tangents. This is especially helpful when in a meeting full of men.

#2 Avoid The Apologetic Anna
Avoid using terminology like “Maybe I’m wrong, but” or “This is just my opinion, but…” It discredits what follows.

#3 Watch Your Words
When you remove the hedging phrases like “I just,” “I only,” “I may be wrong but…” from your vocabulary, be careful not to get rid of “softening language” altogether, particularly if dealing with lots of other women. Sometimes you need to soften the impact of what you’re saying when you’re in a touchy situation. Just choose language that softens the impact without denigrating what you’re saying.

#4 Making A Statement or Asking A Question?
Lots of women use questions to soften what they’re saying – they phrase an opinion as a question because it’s a “safer” way to introduce their thoughts. For example “What do you think about trying…?” or “Maybe we could…?” Instead, make questions questions, and your statements statements. If you’re worried about seeming to aggressive, try adding “I’d love to hear your feedback on this idea” after you’ve clearly expressed your thoughts.


#5 Know When To Shut Up
State your point briefly and clearly – then be quiet. Silence gives others a chance to consider what you’ve said, and respond intelligently.

#6 See & Be Seen
In meetings, sit where you can be both seen and heard, don’t hang shyly back, even if the room full. Politely ask for room to be made at the table.


#7 Learn To Say No (Nicely)
Saying no is not easy. A friend of mine recently shared with me that what she does is instead of saying no to something, she asks instead for 24 hours to “think about it.” This approach A) gives her time to practice a good reason for saying no, and B) prepares the asker to not get a yes response. And long-term, people will think more carefully about what they ask of you.

#8 Ask
A lot of us never ask for what we need. We hold it inside and then get resentful when we don’t get it. Be clear with yourself first about what you want, and then ask for it. One of my favorite new phrases is “I prefer…” which is a kinder, gentler version of “I need” or “I want,” but it clearly states your preferences and it works. Try it.

#9 Control Your Emotions
You can show passion and emotion at work – it shows you’re human – but avoid anger, outbursts and dramatic displays. Never, ever cry publicly at work. Of course there are situations where people will overlook, forgive or ignore any of the preceding, but more often than not it creates discomfort and lowers your status. (Not to mention that deep down, some people suspect that women “turn on the water works” to manipulate situations.) So don’t do it. If you must, leave.

I personally have had situations where I’ve lost control of my emotions, and let me tell you, I STILL regret it.

A good way to manage your emotions is to plan ahead. Before a confrontation, consider the other person’s perspective, anticipate points of disagreement, and formulate responses. And if something takes you by surprise, try to delay the confrontation until you can prepare better.

#10 Grow A Thicker Skin
Face it, sometimes you’re going to mess up, and people are going to call you on it, gossip about it and make you feel badly. Be aware of whether you erred and if so, in which direction (bit** or ditz?) so you can course correct for the next time.

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Want more?

In our upcoming workshop, “How To Communicate More Powerfully (Without Being a Bit%$)” on Tuesday April 13th, we are going to do some hands-on, real-life work to learn many many more ways to communicate more effectively and powerfully. We’re even going to address some basic body language (i.e. do you take up too little space?) It’s going to be both fun and effective (introverts fear not – only volunteers will get called on for role play 😉

That’s Tuesday April 13th at 4:00 PM. Register here.

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17 thoughts on “The Double Standard At Work: Walking The Tightrope Between “Bimbo” and “Bitch”

  1. What a fabulous article! I watched the Clinton/Palin dynamics very carefully and was horrified how many more people (women included) were interested in their clothing than what cane out of their mouths! We as women need to be professional in the work environment, and if bimbo behavior rears it’s head, make sure it stays at home!

  2. Michelle, I have to say that this article fell out of the sky for me…..I was talking to my husband about my struggle between being assertive and being seen as a bi*$% at work. Now I feel like Im not alone. Thank you!

  3. This article is little more than a misguided statement of opinion; it is backed no references whatsoever. My opinion is that men CANNOT get away with being aggressive at work in a way women cannot. As a man, I must say that I am continually fighting my instincts to say what is really on my mind and express my true emotions. Yet I don’t, because of the potential consequences. If I were to express myself, it would make many people “uncomfortable,” including women. Any time a situation arises at work where a woman claims a man is making her “uncomfortable,” guess who wins out? I was Googling “double standard at work” because of my personal belief that men face more scrutiny of their emotions than women. I was surprised to find the top link was an article claiming that women face harsher judgment than men. My opinion is that when women lose their temper at work, as long is it is not a continual pattern of behavior, it is simply ignored, because women are not perceived to be as physically intimidating as men. When a man loses his temper at work, you can bet the incident is more likely to be reported. Yes, of course this rule doesn’t apply when we are speaking of people in managerial positions. In this environment, perhaps being “edgy” is considered to be a sign of strength. However, day to day, on a ground level basis, I think men have to be MUCH more careful about how they conduct themselves.

  4. Michelle, do you really think that we must be bitches in order to succeed in this world? I honestly think that we must still be ourselves and don’t try to emulate what men do.

  5. II leave you with another thought… Is the double standard really a must or we must merge those attributes and just be honest and unique?

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