Powerful People - Women In Particular

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Hey - it's chatty Cathy again (ahem).

I was corresponding with an email buddy this morning and we got talking (a somewhat regular theme for us) about power and handling it and with women in particular - being that our society (at least for us 30 somethings) was geared, when we were kids, for the business and political power to be mostly based in the male segment of the population.

Subsequently, women who did achieve success were in an odd pioneering spot (but resented by both sexes, it seems).

Sometimes it seems to me that women have a tougher time handling power - or using it well. But perhaps this is because of the prominence of successful women and the particular attention I pay to them.

Having once been "powerful" myself I know that it can be a heady and frightening experience - all at once. When you first realize that you can command a mountain be moved (you get the theory - even if finding the example unrealistic) it's hard not to wield that influence heavily. Perhaps not badly - or with bad intentions - but certainly using a heavy hand.

Do you think highly successful women are more "bitchy" than the average female or do you think it's the lens through which we view them that makes it seem that way? And I know this calls for generalizations - but how else can you start the conversation? And if you take it further - even the minor celebrity of being an online "personality" wields a certain amount of power - do you think "we" (being women in that position) get a bad rap or are we really generally more "bitchy" and "nasty" than the average bear and use that "power" badly?

Okay - it's a rambling question, I know. I'd love some discussion, though. Gabby? Surely you have an opinion. Michele? Jill? Anna? Anyone? Al - love to hear your thoughts on this. Toscano? You out there?


-- Catherine (catherine@cmjcom.com), January 05, 2000


As a woman who aspires to be powerful, the question intrigued me. This is something I've been mulling over myself. The first is the question of what power is. After observing powerful women, and women in powerful positions, and recognizing that they are not always one in the same, I've decided that it is about attitude more than anything else. The attitude is almost one of entitlement. That sounds wrong, it's the attitude that you can and will accomplish anything that you take on. I don't believe this makes them bitchy. However, because we were taught that men are to be assertive and women submissive it causes us some psychic discomfort when the woman takes charge. At the age of 20 I took a job coordinating political activities in two counties in Kansas. In one county the chair of the party was a woman, and so were many of the other party officials. I had few problems there. The other county had an old boy network the like of which I had never dealt with before. I thought that it was my age that was causing the problem. I realized later that they thought I was an uppity woman. In truth I am. They wanted a servant, and to have me follow the old ways. I thought I knew what was better. In that job I learned that I am not always right and that there is sometimes a great deal to be learned from the old ways. I never did work very well with those men. I don't know if I'd do any better now (it has only been 2 years)

-- theryn (theryn@eagle.cc.ukans.edu), January 05, 2000.

Women are in general more bitchy I think, but I think that is a gender thing and not A power thing. Women with no power at all can be 'bitchy'.

Then again...isn't 'bitchy' an appelation men gave to us at one point or another because they thought we were being seen too much and not heard? Gr.

Getting back to the idea of women being worse with power than men are, I am not sure. I personally don't know alot of women with enough power for me to make the determination. The few women online I know who are sysops in forums, most of them were pretty much a mized bag as far as being fair or lording it over you, like the men are.

I'll say this...I bet alot of times women are 'perceived' to be being bitchy when weilding power because women with power still make people so nervous they are looking FOR signs of bitchyness, and take anything at all, even a simple command, as being bitchy. And sometimes women may have to get bitchier to have their power taken seriously.

Well, now that I have cleared THAT up. *lol*

-- Liz (faith@asarian-host.org), January 05, 2000.

There is something that I have noticed in the last few positions I have held, in regards to women in positions of power, and that is this: that a woman, when the 'boss', is expected to make the time, and take the effort to foster deep interpersonal relationships with her staff, and if she does not actively do this, she is percieved as a bitch, and her employees will actively try to undermine her authority because of it. However, the whole dynamic changes when the 'boss' is a man: then, employees are the ones making the effort to create a relationship with him, and do not expect him to be making that same effort towards them. Instead, they make a concerted effort to make him notice them, and to win his favour.

I think that society looks and behaves differently toward men and women who hold power. When men make mistakes, they make mistakes, and when women make them, they get fired. And, I think that women are our own worst enemies when it comes to dealing with other women in power. Women undermine other women all the time, when it comes to workplace interaction. I listen, sometimes, to how women talk about other women, and I am apalled. We don't cheer each other on, but instead we run around behind each other's backs, picking away on whatever we can to cut that woman down...*to cut her back down to our own level*. And all it takes for that kind of behaviour to start is for a woman to be the boss, and not be absolutely perfect, every single day.

And I think that that sort of behaviour makes women who do wield power a little leery, because one false step and the next thing you know, everyone is commenting on the size of your ass and the cut of your hair, and feeling like they have the right to bring you down, and to judge you on anything they perceive as a flaw, even if it has nothing to do with the arena of professional life.

Women online. So much potential, wasted with so much gossip. "look what she said" and "look what she did" and "this is what she said about you". I think women use their online power badly, yes. I think we spend far too much time linking to what we loathe, and not enough time celebrating the ones who 'get it'. We don't seem to get that every link we provide is a bit of power shared with the person we link to, and a smart woman doesn't voluntarily give away her power that way. I think women spend a lot more time defining themselves online by what and who they don't like than by what/who they do.

And it all comes down to confidence, because confidence is the ultimate power.

-- kristin (kristin@sperare.com), January 05, 2000.

My best and my worst boss have both been women, and I've worked in predominantly female workplaces (the last 10 as the boss myself) and the generalisation that I'd make is a bit across the question, which is that men know where they are in a hierarchy (and can bitch alarmingly if supposed to be equal) but that women create a lot of trouble for themselves (they were all complaining to me about each other, sometimes even having driven one another to tears) by believing in the myth of their own or their own sex's niceness , (solidarity sisterhood) so that the offences against it were seen as somehow more heinous. That seems to be the main accusation hidden in bitch that its unwomanly to be unkind, territorial, and brusque. When its just human if you're insecure and want whatever status your job brings. The person that other women called a bitch most (and it wasn't that often) was largely unaware of the hurt she caused by just doing her job, doing it well and (the crime) letting other people know it. And the most intemperate and unkind gossip that I know is a man. I think it comes down to having labels for some behaviour in one gender and some in the other. I don't think that what's unacceptable behaviour in one gender is generally acceptable in another.

-- Chris (chris@clatimer.freeserve. co.uk), January 05, 2000.

Are powerful women more bitchy? Yes. Because our society's definition of a "bitch" is a woman who does not spend a lot of time trying to please other people. Bosses by definition can't spend all their time trying to please everyone because then they wouldn't be doing their jobs.

The women some people would consider to be bitches include the very women I am likely to enjoy being around. I like warm caring women too, who doesn't, but powerful go-getters make me glad to be alive. My mother's crew of politicos and volunteers are wonderful, powerful bitchy, laughing old ladies who nurture their grandkids and take on the world without stopping to ask permission. I plan to age just like them.

My mother was told to go home and care for her children more than once during her activist days in the sixties and seventies and I'm sure "bitch" was the least of the epithets that were directed at her when she wasn't there. After one heated political debate, a man she had just trounced in a debate said to her in the hallway "Yes, but I bet you purr like a kitten in bed." He couldn't argue her into silence, so he attempted to use sexual dominance as a weapon of last resort. Calling someone a bitch is similarly dismissive.

You suggested that women sometimes have a more difficult time handling power than do men and I really don't agree. I think women are scrutinized more closely than men when they are in positions of power and held to a different standard. What is called leadership and decision-making ability in a man is called pushy and bitchy in a woman. Also, women might be more wary of crafting relationships because men are so fast to take advantage of it. I'm talking power, here not necessarily sex.

Whoops, this got long. One of my soapbox issues.

-- Jill (viv@rosamundi.com), January 05, 2000.

I've really no opinion on whether "powerful" women are bitchy. I am a woman who has few female friends because I think women tend to be bitches..but that's just a personal thing. As to whether powerful women are "more" bitchy than "average" women...Hell no!!! Ever seen a ghetto queen in action?? Spent any time in the Secretary of State's office to renew your license and found yourself surrounded by the dregs of humanity....a lot of attitude coming off of your plain old women!

-- Em (belovedem@aol.com), January 05, 2000.

I would disagree with you Jill. I believe women do have a more difficult time handling power than men -- but that doesn't mean they shouldn't have power. Thirty years of women's liberation may have provided us with opportunities to lead that we never had before, but we have not found a road map for traversing the differences between male leadership and female leadership. There have been many studies in recent years pointing out the different style that women typically bring to leadership roles. Women are consensus builders. Women frequently invest themselves more heavily in work place friendships as an adjunct to accomplishing the work at hand. Women in leadership roles behave as shepherds bringing their flock safely home; the process of work is as important as the outcome. Men in the same positions are the generals of their armies, dispatching and sacrificing soldiers with their eyes primarily on the goal. Each sex brings definate strengths to leadership, but only the male characteristics are prized and rewarded with any consistency -- that makes things tougher for women.

Besides a difference in leadership style there is also a huge difference in what the personal cost of leadership is for men and women. As women we were raised to be caring, nurturing people and these characteristics are key to how we are judged by society. Traditionally these traits are less important in men, who win approval for their ability to make difficult decisions with a minimum of emotional involvement. Our ability to lead is judged using those traditional male traits. To succeed we virtually must adopt male behaviors that are not completely comfortable for us. Behaving in ways that are not comfortable exact a toll in stress, emotional distress, depression and dissatisfaction with our careers and lives. Until female leadership characteristics are valued as highly as those of men, and I doubt that will happen anytime soon, women who don't adopt at least a portion of the accepted male leadership behaviors may not succeed. So, to lead we will juggle what is expected with what we feel is right for us -- and pay the emotional price.

Jill, I totally agree with you that women are scrutinized more closely than men in leadership roles. Nuances of behavior that would never be discussed in men are dissected ad nauseum in women. I can barely even think about this without my blood pressure rising over the minutia I've been advised to correct in my own behavior. The men who reviewed my performance would have been outraged had their own performance reviews included the same sort of personal commentary.

All that said, I guess successful women probably do seem bitchy and difficult. They have chosen to utilize a plethora of behaviors we respect in men, but as a society find uncomfortable in women. Women aren't bitchy....we simply don't have a history of respecting in-your- face women. That's going to take time, a lot more than the 30 years of women's lib we've had so far. Because there are so few female role models that have the respect of BOTH sexes young women today do struggle in uncharted territory as they try to find the right balance as leaders. During that struggle we undoubtedly make mistakes, mishandle our power, are bitchy, difficult and capricious. But dammit, so are the guys and they've got thousands of years of male leaders to emmulate.

Maybe the most important lesson we have to learn is to respect ourselves and our own female leadership skills and style. When we apply who we are as women to leadership, without second-guessing ourselves, respect will eventually follow.

Ye gods, that's plenty from me and I never even got to the online personality aspects of the question!

-- Michele (michele@excerpta.org), January 05, 2000.

I've worked for quite a few female bosses....probably nine in all. At least three were bitchy--one to the point of where it was her or myself, and I went to complain to someone above her, and got her moved. Two or three were coldly competent, trying to master a subject completely, I think with an eye so no man could ever say they hadn't done their homework. I have been blessed with about four really good female bosses. And the ones I respected were the ones who were courteous, gentle in voice yet not slow to discipline---they were in charge but didn't beat your head over it.

Thinking about it, that's the way I like my MALE bosses too. I think some women do tend to adopt a "bitchy" persona to get ahead, and perhaps they need to. Yet that's a badge of insecurity, like the bastard male boss who advances on the backs of others. The bosses I've liked best are those who give credence to some intelligence to their employers and treat them as--well, not equals, but near- peers....don't talk down but talk TO.

In upper level management, there is a guy who is indisputibly in charge, yet remembers EVERYONE's name and reminds you of your father or an uncle, not a boss. I wouldn't cross him if he made his instructions clear, but I have and would speak to him as an equal.

I suspect that more males have learned this lesson than females, because it's more ---expected?---at least in my or my father's generation, that the males would be in charge...that the best boss is the one who doens't constantly beat you on the head about it.

That only the weak--in power, or in confidence---succumb to cruelty.


-- Al Schroeder (al.schroeder@nashville.com), January 06, 2000.

Difficult, difficult question, Catherine, and not only because of the inherent difficulties in perception of "bitch".

My observations of women in power is taken from my knowing a number of women who were/are pioneers in their lines of work - the first Australian High Court judge is an example (higest Federal Court - like the US Supreme Court), a female Federal Senator another. To get there, you have to be - and apologies to her Honour here - barking mad. To be able to ignore the brickbats and sexual speculations and the allegations of tokenism and *still* want to get there - and actually have the talent to get there - means that these pioneer women need a toughness and a resiliance and perhaps, lack of what is perceived as "social skills" in order to do it.

Thinking about it, Jill, perhaps your mother comes in this category? (and apologies to her, too).

And they've all made it easier for us. I work in an extremely male- dominated area (less than 12% female), but I've found a niche where I can get by - if a guy respects me and my work, all well and good, but if he underestimates me as being a pretty flouncy girly kind of girl, even better - it's much easier to trounce someone if they're thinking your main occupation in life is your hairstyle. The reason I can get up and mix it with the big guys relatively easily is because of the women who got out there and did it hard. I have the occasional twitch in the World of Men, but nothing compared to what they did.

So a big cheer for the bitches, if that's what is meant!

And remember, I'm writing from Australia, which is still in some ways in a bit of a male-female timewarp. Not in the city enclaves where I work and live, but out there in the real world.

Am I a bitch, because I have "power"? I don't think so. My staff tell me I'm not (heh. I do believe them though. They come to my parties and they don't *have* to). Are women generally bitchy? I don't know what kinds of women some of you guys know - but I wouldn't be friends with them either if they go around gossiping and being "bitchy" in that sense. I don't find that's the general rule, though. I have a lot of friends in professional positions, including a woman who has just been elected as the First Woman in her position, head of our profession, and she's tough, but I wouldn't categorise her as bitchy. Many men I know would. Again, a perception thing.

"Saucer of milk, for table two" (Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery).

cheers (as usual, wordy) Anna.

-- Anna (anna@lucidity.au.com), January 06, 2000.

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