Boss Lady, Queen Bee, Bitch On Wheels
Warning: You are about to read the word “bitch” a lot.
I recently heard a radio interview with Jen Agg, a cantankerous Toronto restaurateur who was talking about her new book called I Hear You are a Real Bitch. Agg has a public reputation for being a bitch.
The way I see it is she is a successful high profile woman in a demanding male-dominated industry. I think it is highly unlikely that could have achieved her success without being called a bitch. She seems bent out of shape about it, and I don’t blame her.
She’s pissed off that despite the fact that she is loyal to her employees, cares about the world and strives to be fair, what people want to talk about most is her bitchiness. You see Agg is blunt, outspoken, and assertive. I’ve never met her, but after the interview, I read several online articles about her. She sounds proud, smart, action orientated and sometimes difficult to get along with (all common characteristics of successful people).
There are just a handful of female executive chefs in Toronto, and even fewer female restauranteurs. Agg has emerged as one of the chosen few, and she said in the interview that she believes that she has a responsibility to speak out about the word ‘bitch,’ no matter what people say. She says,
“It’s about the idea that someone who is direct, talks the way that I do, doesn’t pull punches is perceived as a bitch when they’re a woman. Ultimately, it feels to me like I’m judged by a different set of standards than my male contemporaries are. I’m tired of it. It’s not fair.”
I’m cheering her on because I know how she feels.
I’ve been called a bitch too many times to count. You see I was also a successful woman restauranteur. Restaurants are hard to own. The pace is relentless, hours long, and staffing difficult. Throw in an angry egomaniacal chef and impatient customers and an average day is challenging enough to put Mary Poppins in a perpetual bad mood.
Over the course of a decade, I employed over 1,500 people in a town of 10,000. Most of them were awesome, but some of them (let’s say 10%) were horrible. They did shit like stealing, coming to work drunk, taking drugs while at work, sleeping in the kitchen, not coming to work at all, and having knife-wielding, glass breaking suicidal tantrums.
Sometimes I had to fire people or reprimand them. Sometimes I could not give people the day off they wanted or wasn’t as patient as I could be during a busy rush. Sometimes I got pissed off and used ‘the tone’. Lots of people called me a bitch. I heard the phrase “I hear you are a real bitch” so many times that the words stopped shocking me (but they never stopped stinging).
For 90% of my employees, I was a fair boss and a good mentor. I did what I could to help them grow. I provided free meals, fair pay and generous vacation policies. I bought local products to support small businesses, even when it meant a small loss for mine, and volunteered in the community. But no matter what I did I could not shake the bitch label. It wore me out. It alienated me from my community, and it eventually made me hate my job.
Flash forward … I took a job via a twist of fate (that is another story altogether), as a Chief Marketing Officer in a hotel management company. This job gave me fewer reasons to be ‘bitchy’, but I remained outspoken, assertive, strong-willed and sometimes difficult to get along with (usually in defense of a good idea).
I was the only woman on our executive leadership team. The men I worked with were smart and kind. We liked each other and enjoy spending time together. After I heard the interview, I sent them a link to a Toronto Life article about Jen Agg. The subject line of the email was “my new hero” and I said I couldn’t wait to share her book with the young women on my team. I shared this quote from the article,
Agg’s fame has as much to do with her reputation for bluntness as her culinary clairvoyance. When other people call her a bitch, she skewers them. But she uses the label herself, to reclaim its power, weaving it into her provocateur persona and redefining it on her own terms. She’s a bitch, taking pugilistic aim at the sexism women face in the restaurant industry. And, according to her critics, she can be a mean bitch, sniping at her colleagues, her reviewers and even her customers when they piss her off (which is often).
I often share articles. I thought they would find it interesting and assumed they would see why it resonated with me. Jen Agg is my more talented, and only slightly blunter doppelganger. I didn’t intend to set off a bomb, but one exploded none the less. Their reaction astounded me. One more thoughtful colleague said, “There are a lot of wonderful, powerful, female leaders who are not viewed by their peers or themselves as a bitch.”
I thought name three.
A Cosmopolitan career advice article from 2014 highlights that after her bid for mayor of New York City, Christine Quinn was described in exit polls as “bossy,” “petty,” “mean,” “self-interested,” and “combative.” Jill Abramson, the first-ever woman to head The New York Times, was described in a Politico profile as “condescending,” “stubborn,” “uncaring,” “not approachable,” “brusque,” and “impossible.” From Madeleine Albright (“bossy”) to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (called a bitch by her law-school classmates). Women in power have long been punished for exhibiting qualities of assertiveness.
Perhaps no woman in the world has been called a bitch more often than Hillary Clinton. During her presidential campaign, the Atlantic reported,
Standard commentary about Clinton’s candidacy — which focuses on her email server, the Benghazi attack, her oratorical deficiencies, her struggles with “authenticity” — doesn’t explain the intensity of this opposition. But the academic literature about how men respond to women who assume traditionally male roles does. And it is highly disturbing. Given the anxieties that powerful women provoke, it’s not surprising that both men and women judge them more harshly than they judge powerful men.
Pundits don’t call men campaigning for power a bitch and rarely use male equivalencies for this word (such as asshole or bastard). The word bitch is for women who are acting like men, whether this means adopting a masculine style of dress (such as pantsuits), failing to smile (and therefore showing a resting bitch face) or taking a forthright, assertive speaking style.
How did we get here?
The slang version of the word bitch was first used in the 15th century to describe high sexual desire in a woman. For seven centuries since English speakers have used the word bitch is used to describe an aggressive, belligerent, unreasonable, malicious, controlling, or intrusive woman. Bitching is complaining or saying caddy mean things in a womanly manner. When applied to a man, bitch means weakling or pussy — or in other words a person with a vagina.
Our culture heralds male leadership traits such as heroic, commanding, competitive, cut-throat, masterful, assertive, challenging and even quirky. Women who demonstrate these qualities are often labeled with words like “battle axe” “ball breaker” and most commonly “bitch.” A man is regarded as a strong leader when he passionately asserts his point of view while women are expected to be collaborative, cooperative, empathetic and remain open to compromise.
Girls hear the word bitch (or its childhood equivalent bossy) early and often when they exhibit character traits such as assertiveness, outspokenness, and confidence. Many of them decide they would rather not be in charge.
Girls who grow up and aspire to executive leadership roles must accept feeling like a bitch. I have several young woman leaders on my team. They often say “I feel like a bitch” when a work situation demands they assert themselves or their opinions. When they face challenging management scenarios, they ask “How can I do that without making (insert name) think I am a bitch.”
I tell them if you want to be in charge, you better get used to it. If that sounds complicated, well, it is, and it might be why women have reached the CEO suite in just 24 of the Fortune 500. Cultural expectations of how women are supposed to act — warm, nurturing, and self-effacing — clash with the forceful, authoritative traits we associate, consciously or not, with leadership.
These expectations impact women in leadership in many ways, but one of the most challenging is likability. Many studies show that when a woman climbs the corporate ladder that people (men and women) like her less. Success and likability are often a trade-off for women. Many are willing to accept this and are confident enough to shrug it off. However, what other people think matters when competing for promotions or stewarding tough projects to completion.
There are dozens of studies of how a woman’s likability declines as she becomes more powerful. The most famous is the Howard/Heidi study where Harvard students were split into two groups and given a case study describing an entrepreneur who leveraged their outgoing personality and networking skills to become a successful venture capitalist.
The case studies were identical in all ways except one — one group read about an entrepreneur called Heidi while the other readers learned met one called Howard. Both groups were then asked a series of questions about the entrepreneur to ascertain how people felt about their personality. Both sets of students thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent, but Howard was seen as a more likable colleague and poor Heidi, well she didn’t fare too well. She was seen as selfish and not “the type of person you would want to hire or work for.”
The strong woman = bitch stereotype isn’t going anywhere any day soon, so woman leaders are sharing strategies for managing gender expectations while climbing the corporate ladder.
Many leadership manuals dole out advice to women about how to adjust their leadership style so they can be effective without being seen as a bitch. They promote developing a more democratic oriented leadership style, using a soft tone when making a strong point, and using feminine traits, like consensus building, to achieve goals without ruffling male egos.
Some woman are addressing the issue publicly.
One of the highest profile thought leaders on the subject is Sheryl Sandburg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. In 2003 Sandberg published a book called Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. The book was inspired by Sandberg’s Ted Talk, Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders which launched a national conversation when it went viral.
Sandburg argues (convincingly) that internal obstacles hold women businesswomen back. She offers conservative and practical tips such as taking risks with stretch projects, to stop worrying about everyone liking you, and not taking notes during meetings. Women are creating and participating in Lean In Circles to connect and help each other step out of comfort zones. I participate in a fantastic Lean In Circle in Pensacola that frankly is a lifeline that makes working with an all man team bearable.
Agg takes a more aggressive approach. She is threading the word bitch into her personal branding. She says,
“You call me a bitch, and I’ll show you a bitch. I’m confident enough in my leadership ability to not worry about being liked or popular. That ship sailed a long time ago.”
This kind of talk wouldn’t fly in most companies (sure doesn't fly in mine) but I bet it resonates for many women. I will cheer on Agg but refrain from claiming the word bitch as a muse because when it comes down to its most common usage, the word has not escaped its derogatory origins. Ultimately I think the word bitch seeks to keep women down.
The men I worked with are nice people. They would never call me a bitch. But I suspect that word enters their mind when we are exploring contentious issues. After all, this word is a gut reaction arising from deeply ingrained stereotypes.
We all need to question that reaction a little bit more the next time we hear a crazy bitch narrative about a senior woman. In the words of Lily Allen, “Forget your balls, grow a pair of tits. It’s hard out here for a bitch.”