Why Men Can’t Stop Calling Assertive Women in Business “Bitchy”
What‘s behind the cultural stories about assertive women business leaders? Care to take a wild guess?
I live in New York City where, when I walk down the street, I see literally thousands of women a month walking past me. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes. The range of interactions has some variability, but 95% of the time, it works like this: many of the women I glance at are intentionally not looking at me. They are avoiding all eye contact, seemingly staring into some specific spot on the street that does not contain a man’s eyes. If they glance and notice I’m looking at them, they look away very quickly. What I see in that moment is someone being careful. Very very careful.
I don’t look at women for more than a second and I don’t let my gaze linger. I do all these things out of respect for a simple fact — -women don’t feel safe. No matter how “civilized” we insist western society has become, there exists a real and present danger for women, a threat posed by aggressive abusive men.
When I see a street full of women avoiding all eye contact, I feel a deep sense of empathy. Men need to be asking ourselves, what kind of world have we created? That millions of human beings, proven beyond a doubt by neuroscience, sociology, and anthropology to be highly socially adept creatures, live in fear of looking back at us.
If you are man in the market for a relationship with a woman, take note. The signals and the cues are simple. The rules are even simpler. Glance, do not stare. If you get a glance back. Look a bit more. If a women, says “no thanks” in any way, (and yes, that can be as simple as glancing away) move on with courtesy and respect.
What’s more, when guys tell you they don’t think men are “so abusive” they are simply lying. The sad fact is, we men understand exactly how abusive other men can be.
As a child, I feared and avoided eye contact with violent bullying teenage boys. Junior high school was literally a daily exercise in avoiding being assaulted. My issue has never been with women. My issue is with men, who, to this day, are far more likely to represent an aggressive threat to me. I track men much more carefully than I do women for exactly the same set of reasons that women do, because men like to project power. And some men like to project power by verbally or physically abusing strangers and sexually assaulting women.
Men who sexually harass women on the street, in bars, at schools, or in the workplace are abusers and bullies. They are also cowards, often using the additional economic pressures of the workplace to force women to acquiesce, to tolerate, to signal acceptance of such men’s sexually located dominance.
The #MeToo movement is born out of women’s rage against the continuing culture of unwanted sexual abuse in the workplace and every other place they turn. The challenges of being harassed on the street are potentially even worse in spaces where a woman’s financial security is at risk; where woman being harassed can’t simply flee from a job or opportunity they likely worked hard to access. Men like Harvey Weinstein or Donald Trump, or for that matter, Joe in the mail room are abusing women in spaces where women’s careers, networks or social standing are at risk. The implication is, “be a good sport, or you may be out in the cold.”
In that moment, sexual abusers are holding women’s futures, families and professional success hostage. It is a coward’s act by men who are beneath contempt.
Which brings me to the narrative in the business world that says women who assert themselves in the workplace are “angry,” “bossy” or “bitchy,” while men who assert themselves are simply being effective leaders.
Judith Humphrey writing for Fast Company has this to say about the issue:
During those moments when we are showing our strongest selves, women often are hit with ugly, critical comments. We are called “aggressive,” “bossy,” and “bitchy.” Senior women I work with report they are at times labeled “ball buster” and “ice queen.”
All these negative labels originate in the fact that women were brought up to be “nice girls.” We grow up being encouraged to be cordial and pleasing.
Note Humphry’s use of the word, “pleasing.”
Now, overlay this “women in leadership positions are bitchy” trope onto the #MeToo movement’s explosive confirmation (yet again) of widespread sexual abuse in and out of the workplace. Now what does our woman leader narrative point to, specifically?
An even cursory examination of the history of working women will show that early on, not only were women expected to defer to men as “natural leaders,” they are also expected to dole out little flirtations and sexual thrills to their male bosses and co-workers.
“Honey, get me some coffee. Honey, sit on my lap.”
As women have gained more power in the workplace, this culture of sexually tinged obeisance has been driven underground. HR policies preclude it. Our daughters are taught to refuse it. And yet, when sexual advances in the workplace get a resounding “no” from women, or when women reach a level of success that they don’t have to dole out the flirtation candy, men react in universally consistent ways. They get nasty.
The universal “assertive women leader= bossy/bitchy” trope of the business world is informed by the loss of men’s sexual harassment privileges. Women at the office used to be fun. Now they are not fun. But when a woman’s power and position preclude harassing her, well, that is the sin of sins. It is the core driver that underpins the collective narrative about strong women in the workplace. “Sorry boys, no sexual teasing. No unpaid emotional work.”
When women have the power to say “hell no” to workplace sexual advances, it is the EXACT moment that men’s dominance is erased. Because, of course, it’s sexual. Of course that’s where bullying abusive men locate their dominance, in the single most intimate aspect of human interactions.
“She always angry. She’s having her time of the month. She’s a lesbian.”
Those men who are are frustrated that modern women won’t connect with them? That women these days are too harsh or too hard edged? Too feminist? Too militant?
You can thank our “pussy grabber” in chief. Thank Harvey Weinstein. And Lewis C. K. And Roy Moore. But its not just the men at the top. We built this one, boys. This one’s on us. Every cat call in the street. Every locker room joke. Every ass grab on the elevator, every leer, every rude laugh. We can thank our buddies, our brothers, perhaps even ourselves for the rage that women feel as their careers, their bodies, their simple sense of personal joy are held hostage in the daily cat and mouse of our culture of bullying and sexual abuse.
Face facts, gentlemen. We haven’t contributed to creating a safer world for women, we’ve participated in sustaining a shitty one. And on top of it all, we have the unmitigated gall to be frustrated that we don’t get enough sex.
#MeToo is an explosive rejection of men’s ugly, brutal power games in the workplace and on the streets. Men’s sulking resentment at having their power challenged is evident in the nearly universal “women leaders as bitchy” trope, and in the abusive responses men provide because women have the audacity to stand up for their basic human rights.
The wave of #MeToo revelations will continue. If I was a women living with generations of this crap, I would be so goddamned angry I would be on fire. But I am not a woman. I am a man. And as such, I’m stuck watching revelations of famous male abusers play out over and over again, in the media, in the Congress, Democrats and Republicans, young and old, white and black.
Just today a man wrote this in my feed on Facebook. “Locker room talk is just that. It is all talk and does not make you a predator.”
Locker room talk does not mean that every man who indulges in it is a predator, but it perpetuates a culture in which predators can hide. The term locker room talk itself is designed to insulate the men who speak this way, as if they exist only in some kind of mythical man-only space. There is no such space. Locker room talk is spoken in a world populated by the women and the girls who must co-exist with us, along with the words, ideas and predators we grant refuge to. Locker room talk is a phrase designed to excuse men for hateful talk that is hurting girls and women as well as boys and men. It is cowardly, abusive and weak.
And as a man, I get to own my part in this. I don’t get a pass, and I don’t get a #NotAllMen.
Until all of us men, every single one of us, take responsibility and stand up against the epidemic of public and private sexual abuse going on all around us, we will rightfully be held accountable for the men among us who behave like animals instead of human beings.
“First, see the culture. Then, change the culture.” Want to start a powerful conversation about masculinity with someone you care about? Get Mark Greene’s The Little #MeToo Book for Men at Amazon worldwide → https://amazon.com/dp/0983466963
Read more by Mark Greene:
Why Do We Murder the Beautiful Friendships of Boys?
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