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“The End of Bitchy” Author on Ambition and Being a #Boss

Can society (that means EVERYONE) please stop calling career-focused women “bossy”?

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Bossy, bitchy, aggressive—if you’re a woman with a strong voice and an even stronger sense of career direction you may have found yourself being unfairly dubbed one or all of these things at work—sometimes even by friends.

Don’t for a second let playground insults pierce your sense of purpose, though. These labels aren’t deep insights into your character; they’re just holdovers from outmoded gender stereotypes, says Judith Humphrey, founder of Toronto based communications firm the Humphrey Group and author of Taking the Stage: How Women Can Speak Up, Stand Out, and Succeed. Humphrey talks to about how women can take the sting out of “bossy,” “bitchy” and “aggressive.”

You recently wrote a piece for Fast Company called “The End of Bitchy,” in which you tackled gender stereotypes that tend to inhibit women’s success at work, specifically the idea that successful or ambitious women are bossy or pushy. What prompted that post? This topic is something I address in my book because I thought it was so important for women to know how to deal with labels. It’s a big issue and of course the “Ban Bossy” movement started by Sheryl Sandberg really would suggest that we should eliminate labels.

There are different ways to eliminate them but I think one of the best ways is for women not to be intimidated by them in the first place. It’s really an aspect of my book, which is about mindset. It’s so important that women have a mindset that feels powerful, feels as though they don’t have to cower…and one of the things that women feel intimidated by are these labels of “bossy”, “pushy” or “aggressive.” We’ve all been labeled and often during our strongest moments: when we feel confident, capable and powerful.

You really promote the idea that women take the sting out of these terms for themselves. How though? You can and you should and the way you do that is not to give them power. We have the ability to own our own power and our own self-definition. We should not let other people define us. That’s part of taking the stage [at work]…We can’t be thinking of ourselves as being defined by other people. We have to be the centre of our own identity. We have to show the world who we are, and if we are being labeled and giving power to those labels then we are letting other people define us.

How should a woman deal with being called a bitch or bossy or aggressive? The starting point is not to assume that if they say it that it’s true. You can deflect that comment by realizing that some people just are angry and that some people don’t necessarily want women to be strong. There are many reasons in life why someone might hurl a label at you, and it might have nothing to do with you… Secondly, I think you actually have to respond in some way. You can’t just let that comment stay on the table. If you’re in a group meeting or one-on-one and someone hurls one of these invectives at you, you have to say something. If someone says ‘You’re being bitchy’, you might say ‘Well, that’s how you may see it.’

I might even say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Yeah! Or I might say “Well, that’s how you interpret strength in a woman.”

You mention an incident where a friend got up at a dinner that was being held for you and referred to you as “the most aggressive” woman she’d ever met. How do you deal with other women who invoke unflattering stereotypes at our expense? I think you can be more outspoken with women. I said to my friend later alone, ‘How could you say that I’m the most aggressive woman you’ve ever met?’ I think you can ask them to explain and try to show them that your success doesn’t make you aggressive…We need to have that kind of conversation with women when that kind of thing comes up because we need to support each other.

Your post for Fast Company suggested that women need to take gender stereotypes seriously as obstacles to success, but that they shouldn’t take them to heart and let them affect their sense of self or their sense of destiny. We don’t have to conform to gender stereotypes. Quite the opposite. I think these stereotypes are just the result of socialization. If you consider men and women at birth, we’re probably very much the same but we’re taught to be quite different. Girls are taught to fit in, to be nice, and boys are taught to stand out and be different and better than the other boys. These patterns of behaviour get entrenched, and the best thing is for us to see that we can be more like men and men can be more like women.

With that idea in mind, I find it helpful to think about how men respond to being called names. I’ve never seen a man get upset or act hurt if he’s called a jerk or an a—hole at work. Exactly. They just laugh it off.