Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Assertive + Competent = Bitch?

A long time ago, my grandmother -- one of the first women to hold a seat in the upper house of India's Parliament -- told me that I’d have to choose: I could either be sweet and well-liked (and make do with whatever the world decided to hand to me) or I could be aggressive, go after what I want, and be considered a bitch.

I didn’t believe her.

But she was right.

I had a pretty stark reminder of this at work some time ago. We were down a person, and the projects were piling up. One that was in pretty bad shape landed on my desk, and I threw myself into it 110 percent.

I brought it home with me and stayed up late wrestling with it. I devoted all of my energy to it at the office. I turned ideas and thoughts about it over and over in my head as I worked on other things. I fact-checked, I researched, I patched loopholes.

When it was done, I thought it was pretty good. Much better than it had been before, at any rate.
But… when I turned it in, I got an earfull. Apparently, in being aggressive with the project, I had “attacked” it and been “too strident.” It seemed as if I “had an agenda” and wasn’t “impartial enough.” I shouldn’t have made the decisions that I did, even though they were clearly the right ones, because those decisions should have been made by someone higher up.

I really couldn’t win this one. If I had slacked and done just the bare minimum, the project would have been OK, but nothing great, and I probably would have been taken to task for not working hard enough. But taking the initiative to do more than what was required of me made me “strident” and “arrogant.” In other words, a bitch.

My hard work had worked against me.

What’s stupid of me is that I should have seen it coming; this has happened to me many times before. If I’m confident, I’m seen as arrogant. If I’m correct about something and don’t back down, I’m officious and I don’t know when to stop. If I’m aggressive, I’m a bitch.

Years ago, I’d feel horrible about it. Sorry, even. But you know what? I don’t, anymore.

On Saturday Night Live, in a repeat from the end of the writer’s strike, Tina Fey told the “Weekend Update” audience: “Bitch is the new black.” (Click on the link for transcript and video.) She was talking about the public perception of Hillary Clinton, but, really, what she said applies to any strong woman out there. “You know what?” she said. “Bitches get stuff done.”

The project got done, and got done well. If that makes me a bitch, well… maybe I can live with that.

So, is being a bitch a bad thing? I asked my readers over at The 36-Hour Day, and the discussion was an eye-opener.

Some commenters wondered if the issue was geographical; others found that they were labeled "too timid" by the same people who also called them "too aggressive"; one commenter pointed out that the B word is a great acronym (Babe in Total Control of Herself). What do you think? Can you be confident and aggressive, and not be considered a threat -- or worse?

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