How We Bought Into The Myth Of The “Bitchy Boss”

How We Bought Into The Myth Of The “Bitchy Boss”

Ask any woman working, especially senior women, and they’ll tell you; the pressure to be everything to everyone has never been more real.

On one hand, women-identified workers are dealing with persistent expectations of femininity, based on stereotypes of care-taking and emotional labor—all first-class sensitivity and sympathetic smiles. On the other hand, female leaders are expected to act like leaders. That is, direct, decisive, confident, and commanding.

We’ve all been in those situations where we’re expected to placate someone else at work and in doing so, uphold social norms expected of us. It’s frustrating, exhausting and in most cases, it’s completely unnoticed by the person on the receiving end of all those patient laughs, excessive exclamation points, smiley faces, and unhailed office chores. The result? Less time and energy spent on actually leading.

An insidious and often overlooked aspect of this gendered workplace performance though, is the way women can at once be expected to enact it, and at the same time, can demand it of other women above (or even next to) them.

Harvard Business School professor and economist, Robin Ely, has been researching gender dynamics and tokenism since the ‘80s and has found a Russian doll of women criticizing more senior women. Especially in organizations where the value placed on women is evident in the amount that are hired—very little.

“What I often hear from [women] is how they feel about the women above them,” she says. “They feel like ‘They’re not paying enough attention.’ ‘They act too much like men and I don’t feel any identification with them and I wish I would.’ And I have to remind them—especially if there aren’t very many of them—thattheymight be coming across the same that way to the women below them.”

“There is a Russian doll of women criticizing more senior women. Especially in organizations where the value placed on women is evident in the amount that are hired—very little.”

And therein lies the trap of gendered manager-to-supervisee thinking—the idea that women are somehow (genetics?!) predisposed to competition and passing judgement on one another. It’s a story we read ourselves that, without a willingness to rip up, continues to write itself again and again.

“There’s no evidence to suggest that on balance, women don’t get along with each other,” says Ely. “Thereisevidence that when you depict a conflict between two women set in the workplace and you depict the same conflict—the same dynamic, the same words being spoken—between two men, it will be perceived by both men and women as much more negative when it’s between women … it’s a classic gender bias story.”

To illustrate, Ely points to the covers of career advice books. The ones aimed at women are filled with sensational language; Queen bees, bullies, and devils inhabiting the corner office (and how to deal with them). Meanwhile, Ely says career advice books aimed at men are a little different: “They have all these strong white men on the covers and it’s all about being competitive and strategic leadership, and that’s a good thing. ‘How to win in the competitive game’—that’s what men are being taught. Women are being told they need to be nicer and that they’re horrible to each other.”

So when strong leadership infringes on the borders of feminine propriety, it’s all too easy to play that tape. “Conflict between women can get interpreted more negatively and taken more personally because of this stereotype,” says Ely. “Not because women are more likely to take things personally. They’re not.” In other words, the issues between employees and their managers are largely a function of how much power women have, both in their company and in the culture.

And wow, are there issues. In writing this piece, I put a quickcall-out on Twitterthat read “Have you had a ‘bad female boss’ who challenged you to examine your own internalized sexism as a woman-identified worker?? I’m writing a story on the dynamics between senior and junior women and the double-bind of being a female manager. DMs open if you have thoughts/feelings!” While pithy, I thought the mention of internalized sexism meant answers would be thoughtful and measured, and many were.

Many other DMs, however, included these words: Petty, rude, tough, bitch, aggressive, nitpicking, nightmare, condescending, reactive, micromanager, and blunt. Even on a site called “Girlboss” women were willing to go on record to trash their female managers. Would the same be true for their male ones? Maybe it would, but I suspect the language would be different.

On the more measured front, and worth noting: Even after describing the behavior of their horrible bosses, some Twitter users pointed to the double bind their bosses were tied in, empathizing with them even as they were complaining about how much they sucked:

“There are internal and external pressures that make it difficult as a … woman in leadership … Women have to work significantly harder. It’s the system that’s broken, not the players … But I am reticent to work under a female supervisor.”

“On top of being the only woman in charge, guys would joke about her and be jerks sometimes. I’ve always thought that she felt too much pressure and lashed out.”

“I try not to moan at home because my partner as likened it to “high school behavior” and I don’t like giving that impression of a professional woman … I still want to show solidarity with the women on my team, even if they’re a nightmare!”

The tension between the expectation that women be rational, capable leaders and emotionally sensitive caretakers and BFFs, is palpable. And while it comes from the broader culture, it takes a lot for an individual, let alone an organization, to address it and counter it.

“There’s a lot of pressure on female leaders to be everything to everybody; exactly what every woman imagines she wants to see in a senior woman” says Ely. “That’s a pretty heavy set of expectations to carry and I think that senior women get pretty tired of it.”

“Petty, rude, tough, bitch, aggressive, nitpicking, nightmare, condescending, reactive, micromanager, and blunt—are just some of the words women use to describe their bosses.”

Co-authors ofNo Hard Feelings: The Secret Power of Embracing Emotion at Work, Liz Fosslien and Mollie West Duffy agree. Over email, they told me that this pressure oftenputs women in a difficult position: “When they’re kind and compassionate, they’re well-liked but told they lack leadership potential. But if they speak with confidence, they’re chastised for being ‘aggressive.’ To avoid this kind of judgment, women often end up using qualifiers or hedging words like ‘might’ and ‘I think’ to frame requests as questions.”

“Even still,” Ely adds, “very often senior women don’t want to make a big deal about gender because they spent most of their professional lives trying to make it not a big deal. Because when genderisa big deal, it’s because it’s working against you. That [desire to minimize the role of gender] translates to not wanting to be a mentor, or to be everything that more junior women want you to be.”

In other words, lifting up the women below them may not be on the top of every female exec’s to-do list, especially when it’s read as a gendered expectation from said junior women—the same women who would call you a bitch in a Twitter DM.

The result is one we’re all familiar with: managers and workers who don’t really like each other. “Once you’ve decided who the other person is—a nasty person or whatever—that’s the trait that gets attributed to her,” says Ely. “Then you react to that and you actually create negative tension in the relationship that might not have otherwise been there. I see stereotypes as the real culprit.”

The damage

While gender doesn’t determine the feeling or reactions people have when asked to undertake emotional labor—nobody likes it, according to a2001 study—theresponseto demands of emotional labor are read very differently for men versus women. When men conduct emotional labor at work, they’re loudly applauded, one piece ofacademic researchfound.Look at that kind man, doing something caring. So emotionally intelligent. Well done him.

However, when women display the same behavior, it’s read as natural.Nothing to see here.This bodes particularly poorly for senior women who don’t conform to feminine ideals in tone, behavior, and even appearance. And naturally, these feminine ideals also have any associated element of race (white), sexual orientation (straight), and class (well presented, good manners, and a genial yet quiet demeanor). Also disturbing, the same 2001 study found that when men demonstrate anger at work, it’s read as authoritative—a display of powerrather than proof of a serious personality flaw, or an invitation to receive a laywoman’s diagnosis ofsociopathy.

No surprise then, that every time I tell fellow female-identifying peers that I’ve only ever worked for female bosses and managers, they more state than ask: “What’sthatlike?” adding, “Ugh, I would much prefer to work for a man. Less drama.” But that’s far from the extent of the far-reaching ways women are punished for daring to be leaders in our culture.

Research shows that women who generally succeed in male-dominated organizations arestraight up disliked. Those who self-advocate are viewed asless hirable. And women who express anger? Forget about it. They’re typically relegated to alower statusaltogether. Then come the adjectives likeabrasiveandmean.

In fact, linguist Kieran Snyder, conducting asample studyor men’s and women’s performance reviews, found that while 58.9 percent of the reviews received by men contained critical feedback, 87.9 percent of the reviews received by women did. And while men’s feedback was largely geared toward suggestions for new skills worth developing, women’s contained sentences like this one:“You can come across as abrasive sometimes … You need to pay attention to your tone.”

AsresearcherMichelle Heilman toldFast Company back in 2014, these female leaders are viewed as “out of line, breaking the rules, violating the ‘shoulds’ of gender stereotypes. The issue is not ‘Are women that way, or are they not?’ The issue is: Women and men are probably behaving exactly the same, but women are taking a hit.”

The most frightening part of Heilman’s findings though, is this: When women are expected to be everything to everyone—a mentor, a mother, the office cupcake-baker, and a friend—all that invisible work robs them of the time any leader (or would-be leader) needs to commit to visible, valued work in order to actually get ahead.

Our expectations of our fellow women aren’t just unfair, they’re actively helping to hold us all back.

The marching orders

Despite everything, Fosslien believes that change is possible, and that it starts with women letting other women be themselves—not just the way the culture currently expects them to be. “Don’t shy away from being decisive and straightforward,” she says. “Your colleagues will appreciate the clarity and direction. Phrase requests confidently and clearly. Instead of asking, “Would it be possible for you to finish a one-page memo by tomorrow?” try “The client needs the memo by tomorrow end of day. Can you complete it by then?”

She also points to the best example of women’s workplace solidarity and amplification: thestrategy employedby female staffers in Obama’s Whitehouse. “When one female staffer suggested an idea, another would repeat it and give the first woman the credit,” she says. “President Obamanoticed, and began calling on the women present more frequently.”

But it may take more than in-meeting amplification to fix something so broken. It may take women to point the mirror at themselves as much as at the systems that got us here. Ely points to consciousness raising. “Women need to understand these stereotypes, and that they may be prone to evoking them,” she says. “They should also be attentive to the degree which female leaders are valued and respected—or not—in their work environment more broadly. That’s something they don’t want to take into their relationships with each other.”

She continues: “Be really careful about not enacting those things … consciously work to have more candid conversations with each other. Don’t react to a trigger … Be particularly aware of the ways your relationships with other women might go off the rails because of stereotypes, and really check yourself.”

“Be particularly aware of the ways your relationships with other women might go off the rails because of stereotypes, and really check yourself.”

And for senior women managing other women? The same holds true. “A lot of times, senior women feel the need to protect themselves because there’s a bad stereotype about them,” says Ely. “It’s easy to get defensive, but once you’re in a defensive place, it’s very hard for people to really get to know you and work with you.”

“Bring your humanity into the relationship. That’s gonna go against the grain when you feel judged,” she says, “and it’s a challenge. But when people really connect with each other on ahuman level, they can weather a lot of storms.”

The burdens placed on female managers and bosses are so well hidden, they’re essentially invisible. And that means they’re difficult to fix. But we likely won’t even get close if we don’t begin to examine our thoughts and our behaviors—toward both men and women in leadership positions.

Creating a culture of self-sufficiency, where things areneverpersonal, is a positive start. So is having an open conversation about boundaries, emotional labor, and the nature of invisible work (it could happen). And while we’re at it, how about we celebrate the age old male-dominated practice of self-promotion? Nothing wrong with a woman who humblebrags.

And for God’s sake, let’s all agree to stop coddling men at work. Lifting a finger once doesn’t warrant a lifetime of such-a-nice-guy points, Barry.

Whether you’ve made it to the C-suite or are about to step into your fist management role, leadership skills are something we can always brush up on and improve upon. Join us in Leadership Hall at the Girlboss Rally for actionable workshops and IRL advice that will help you step into your next leadership role. Register now at