Why The Myth Of The "Difficult Woman" Is Total BS

by JR Thorpe

The British equivalent of the "nasty woman" moment heard around the world was a bit quieter, and definitely not meant to be heard: a male politician was caught on a microphone calling the Prime Minister, Theresa May, a "bloody difficult woman." It was an intriguing moment in the history of sexism in leadership: why are female leaders still expected, in 2016, to be nice and charming and helpful — and pilloried if they aren't? The realities of the "difficult" woman in charge — the one who charges forward, makes assertive claims, and isn't perhaps warm and fuzzy over coffee with her employees — are deeply rooted in historical sexism and our gendered assessment of the particular characteristics associated with power. And it's about time we looked again at those ideas before pushing them out of a figurative window.

This is not to say that female leaders can't be bad at their jobs; as I'll discuss, the aspects of leadership that can go badly wrong are gender-neutral, though some studies have found that women in corporate positions make better leaders overall. The problems facing women who want to be bosses are myriad, and the stereotypes about them remain pervasive (and it's not hard to see where they might come from, with a 2015 study finding that men see "powerful women" as masculinity-threatening harridans).

So let's go on a journey into the really aggravating association between men and power, and what happens to women when they step outside those confines. Here's why the idea of the "difficult woman" — in power or otherwise — is total BS.

A Woman Is "Difficult," But A Man Is "In Charge"

What we're talking about here is the deep and abiding belief in women's appropriate behavior, and how assertiveness, aggressive refusal to compromise, and other attitudes attached to power aren't acceptable for them. Meekness was meant to be the prevailing attitude of mature women (i.e. the ones in marriages) throughout most of Western history; the Synod of Gangra in 340 AD, a meeting of influential Catholics, declared that women were "naturally" submissive as their normal state, and a pastor in Salem informed his daughter in the 1630s that meekness was "Womans Ornament."

It's not just a Western idea, either; the notion of the quiet, submissive woman as ideal is also found in cultural discussions in Japan and Saudi Arabia, and a famous collection of women's voices from Latin America in 1980 is actually called Latin American Woman: The Meek Speak Out. Though individual cultural differences remain (and, in many countries, meekness is seen in contrast to the more liberated, loudmouth Western woman), women have often been expected to be quiet and emotionally supportive rather than leading and making decisions.

This is, of course, not the entirety of the female story throughout history; it's full of prominent women who took charge and challenged preconceived ideas, from Empress Theodora to Yaa Asantewaa. But powerful women in patriarchal societies, even if they were Elizabeth friggin' I, often had to fight against notions of womanhood that precluded being active decision-makers and arguing against (or even, gasp, overruling) male ideas. Against this pervasive context, it's not any wonder that the notion of a woman in power making demands — for her company, her beliefs, or most shockingly, for herself — becomes "difficult," unnatural, strange, and obscene rather than just what people in charge have to do.

And if you don't think this issue remains a problem in modern society, what with all the kick-ass women we have as CEOs and Prime Ministers (hey, Angela Merkel!) — let us consider the charming treatment of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail. From calling her voice "shrill" and too masculine to discussions of her "temperament" as "out of control" (a Trumpism from one of the debates), Clinton had to fight against the notion of being difficult and inherently inappropriate, a woman demanding power, at every turn. The notion that a woman who wants something is "difficult" is rooted in the idea that women demanding things and ordering men around is inherently a violation of the natural order.

Powerful Women Are In A Double Bind

Studies have repeatedly shown that women in managerial or otherwise powerful roles tend to be in a difficult position because of highly gendered ideas about the nature of wielding power. A study done by Wharton in 2005, for instance, found that effective leadership skills were often characterized as "masculine," and that women in power were penalized for using them because "we expect men to do that," in the words of the lead researcher. (Crucially, they're penalized for this by other women too.)

And a fascinating meta-analysis of different studies in 2011 found that, while gendered ideas about power have decreased a bit over time, associations between power and masculinity are still mainstays: "people viewed leaders as quite similar to men but not very similar to women, as more agentic than communal, and as more masculine than feminine." Part of it, they explain, is something called "role incongruity," where women just aren't perceived as fitting into leadership roles because their stereotypical strengths aren't what's seen as required.

The "difficult" thing isn't just about being assertive, either; it's about warmth. Women are supposed to be warm, welcoming, supportive, and democratic, according to gendered ideas. Unfortunately, as anybody who has been in a leadership position knows, sometimes warmth is neither necessary nor appropriate, and that gives rise to the "difficult" moniker. The American Association of University Women, in a study called Barriers & Bias released in March, noted that "time and time again, female leaders are chided for being too bossy, bitchy, cold, or aggressive: characteristics that are at odds with traditionally “feminine” attributes like compassion, warmth, and submissiveness. This inequity is particularly apparent in the political realm, where women candidates are perpetually attacked for being perceived as uncaring or combative."

Paradoxically, though, if women embrace this "warmth," they'll be pilloried for being ineffective. It's not a fun position.

Actual "Difficult" Boss Behavior Knows No Gender

Here's the real truth: everybody knows what real "difficult" behavior is in a professional or leadership environment, and it's just as likely to be done by men as by women.

The characteristics of bad leadership are pretty gender neutral. Forbes' list of poor leadership characteristics include lack of vision, lack of character, massive ego, no flexibility or accountability, and an absence of courage. The phenomenon of "toxic bosses" covers a rampant amount of in-office sins, from a refusal to listen to or trust employees to what Psychology Today calls "whiners, pleasers, stealth bombers, scandalmongers" and other deeply unproductive leaders who foster horrible workplace environments. The reality is that poor bosses exist, but that what makes them poor isn't based around their gender (I can't believe I have to actually say this considering it's 2016).

Intriguingly, a 2015 study found that women actually tend to be better leaders in corporate environments, in part because their workplace cultures are more praise-focused, often provide mentorship, and try to connect with employees. That's not a wishy-washy "lady thing:" it's good corporate practice, and a likely consequence of a leader who's had to fight to the top without a lot of support or praise herself.

It's also possible to argue that men have made far more disastrous leadership decisions in history, but that's not entirely fair, as so many more of them have had the opportunity to screw up. Unfortunately, women have a long way to go before they can make mistakes at the same level. This is the reality of the situation: Being a bad boss is possible regardless of your gender identity; but being seen as "difficult," or a "nasty woman," is unfortunately the fate of one gender in particular, because of antique gendered expectations about "niceness," leadership, and power. May 2017 be the year of very difficult women.