Why It’s Okay to be a Bitch

In a minibus taxi ride not too long ago, my attention was grabbed by a conversation on the radio about Forbes’ list of the most powerful women. What sparked my interest was the use of the word powerful, not influential. Women like Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Michelle Obama came to mind as influential, but the anchor pointed out that the top six most powerful women featured on Forbes’ list were all involved in politics and business. The first three women were names I had heard before: Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Melinda Gates. But I was surprised to find out that the COO of Facebook, and CEOs of General Motors and YouTube (who were the remaining top six) were all women. This could be my own ignorance (which I don’t doubt) or my instilled image of men dominating the business world, but I was happy to hear that some of the companies which I consider to be industry giants had women at the helm. It made me proud and inspired to think that I had the potential to be a woman in power, the restraints of gender inequality long forgotten…

But wait.

Being a woman in power does not always mean being the Chancellor of Germany, and have I not been a chairperson, team leader or (presently) a Chapter Correspondent? Do these roles not create a power dynamic between myself and those I am expected to co-ordinate? And yet, it feels uncomfortable recognising myself as someone who needs to assert dominance and discipline, because I fear being disliked or, even worse, considered a bitch. The word always stings, no matter how well you’ve learnt to deflect it. When was the first time you were called a bitch? Were you genuinely being mean, or were you being assertive? Trust me, I’m under no illusion that women are all saints or that we would never act in a way that warrants the reaction of “this bitch”. But the lines have become blurred on whether a woman is being a bitch, or being a boss. It sometimes feels as though I am expected to be more passive or gentle, lest I come across as being overly-emotional. Perhaps, as a young adult, I am still learning how to navigate being professional and assertive while also being friendly. So I looked to science rather than opinion.

A Psychology paper written by Daria Bakina (found here) enlightened me on a few findings regarding gender and positions of power. Firstly, there are traditional gender roles that we undoubtedly, subconsciously compare leaders to. For example, men are expected to be assertive and independent, whereas women are expected to be relationship-oriented and agreeable. However, the prototypical leader is someone who can take charge and act decisively while still allowing for democracy and the inclusion of team members’ feelings. It was found that the leadership styles of men and women do not differ greatly, yet women in higher positions of power were still evaluated negatively compared to men in similar positions. Bakina makes the point that a leader is expected to act in ways which are associated with masculinity and that when women act as good leaders, they are viewed negatively because they are betraying the societal expectations of women.

If being a good leader means that you are seen as a bitch, then so be it. Until our perceptions of gender in the workplace are shifted so that a leader is a leader, regardless of gender, being a bitch means you’re doing something right. Tina Fey has many wise words for women in the workplace, but one quote (which I will adopt as my mantra) goes as follows:

“So my unsolicited advice to women in the workplace is this: when faced with sexism or ageism or lookism or even really aggressive Buddhism, ask yourself the following question: "Is this person in between me and what I want to do?" If the answer is no, ignore it and move on.” (Tina Fey, Bossypants)

Being a good leader shouldn’t make you a cold, uncaring person. Listen to your team, be open to criticism and acknowledge where you may have faltered. But, if being assertive leads to team members viewing you as a bitch, take it from Tina and just keep swimming.