The Sad Truth About Assertive Women

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There’s a scene in The Proposal where Sandra Bullock’s character, a go-getting publishing executive who is first called “Satan’s Mistress,” busts a move by a campfire, while chanting the lyrics to “Get Low” with Betty White. It is the first time we see this incredibly successful woman as a human being — it’s hilarious, ridiculous, and all sorts of wonderful.

This is, of course, only halfway through the movie. For the most part, successful women have been portrayed in pop culture as cold and heartless — a "bitch," essentially. There’s Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada, obviously, Katharine from Working Girl, Patty Hewes in Damages. Turn to real life, and you’ll find Maureen Dowd saying Hillary Clinton ‘"scrubbed out the femininity, vulnerability, and heart;” employees describing Marissa Mayer as “cold” and “unwilling to listen;” and Ellen Pao getting criticized for “sharp elbows.”

Many women have had the experience of being labeled a "bitch," says social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of No One Understands You And What To Do About It. And, most of the time, it has to do with social stereotypes about how women should behave, and what "smart" looks like. 

“Studies have shown that I don’t have to believe that women aren’t good at math, just knowing that the stereotype exists means I can still be affected by it,” Halvorson says. “As long as society at large sort of believes this, it’s still rooting around your brain, influencing how you see people.”

So what does that have to do with our perception of powerful women — or powerful people in general? “First, we learn to stereotype that competence and warmth are inversely related,” Halvorson says. Past studies, she notes, have shown that when people write a letter to a stranger and want to seem smart, they come off as cold, and emotionless. “But, if they’re asked to show warmth and friendliness, people will do things like not use any words more than six letters long,” Halvorson says. “It’s like, if we want to be liked we play dumb. If we want to be respected we kinda act like assholes.”

What happens in the work setting is exactly the same — people in positions of power tend to exude competence, but forget to project any sort of warmth. With women, however, it’s particularly difficult, thanks to pre-existing stereotypes. “We learn that the stereotype of a woman is loving, caring, warm, kind — but not particularly a go-getter,” Halvorson says. Think Marilyn Monroe — the uber-femme archetype. “People remember her as a ditzy blonde,” Halvorson says, “but she wrote poetry; she was someone who had a lot of depth.” On the flip side, the world sees Sherlock Holmes, and “it’s almost like you think he’s smarter because he’s such a jerk. Like, he doesn’t have time to be nice because he’s so brilliant,” Halvorson says. “Unfortunately, men can just get away with it more than women.” 

For women in the workplace, however, this smart versus warm tradeoff is very real. The binary created, Halvorson says, is either be “competent and cold — that’s the bitch — or warm and incompetent — the doormat who no one takes seriously. The more competent you appear, the more likely you’re going to appear cold.”

Of course, it’s not like people actively believe these stereotypes. "There certainly aren’t a lot of men or women running around saying, 'If a woman is smart she’s a bitch,'” Halvorson says. “It’s more a gut reaction that happens because of stereotypes, and we need to question that reaction a little bit more. If I find myself thinking, wow that was a little bitchy, I have to ask, if it were a man doing that, would it seem so cold? And the answer is often no.”

Still, for the most part, leaders need to be seen as both competent, and warm in order to be trusted. Regardless of gender, there are certain tactics that ensure you come across as both. “There are ways to show good intentions without diminishing yourself, like showing you are fair, honest, principled, and loyal,” Halvorson says. “No one is ever going to think, you’re so principled and fair, you must not be very smart.”
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Other tactics? Ask questions, make eye contact, and maybe if you’re feeling it, smile. And, while “it is harder for women, it’s not an unsurmountable problem,” Halvorson says. “I’d like women to feel empowered that there’s something they can do, so they don’t have to be victims to this unconscious bias that’s not working in our favor. You can still be badass, but you can be likable badass.”
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