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So they are still calling us bitches? Eight Ways Women Leaders Can Win in the Perception Game.

She was 40, successful and had just been canned because her boss told her she had “an edge.”

“Why do I scare the hell out of people?” she asked me. “People either love me or hate me. I am told I need to tone it down, not to push so hard. I’ve been called a ‘bitch.’ What do I need to do?”

 I wondered:  “Why the hell are you asking me that?  That’s my problem.”

 That conversation happened eight years ago in front of seven senior executives who’d coaxed me into hopping into rental cars and heading for a Mexican border town after I’d done the keynote for their women’s leadership conference. They assumed that I had all the answers. Not that time.

 That woman had bared a raw truth that, after a few more drinks, every one of the other executives shared. They, too, felt like misfits. Outsiders. They had achieved so much success, power and authority, but they’d always gotten nailed when they exerted a little force. People sniped behind their backs, “Do you know what she’s done this time?” As managers, they were hired to shake things up, make things better, or improve the bottom line, but when they made changes, they were met with a resounding chorus of, “That bitch!”

That conversation led me to interview everyone from Hillary Clinton to Arianna Huffington to Susan Sarandon for my book, Mustang Sallies which I am not mentioning here as a transparent attempt to boost sales. I bring it up because it was published five years ago and women are still feeling the same pain.

 Things have gotten better because more women are in power and fewer men are surprised to see them there. In fact, there are legions of good men who are championing this generation of women executives so they will be more effective and successful. I don’t hear the word “bitch” as often as I used to. I see women going faster and farther. But, have we resolved the issues that kept that woman feeling watched and judged? No.

There are still things women leaders can and cannot do because we are still operating in a restricted zone of operation. We are not to say things with the same tone as men. If we’re too nice, we are seen as too weak. If we’re too strong, we’re controlling. If we’re too direct, we’ve got an edge. If we defend ourselves, we’re hysterical.

It goes on and on.  Two nights ago, I dined with senior executive women working for three of America’s largest corporations. We basically had the same exact conversation I’d had with those women who’d gone to Mexico with me. These successful women still feel they are maneuvering through that tiny zone of operation. One woman told me about receiving an e-mail that had accidentally been copied to her by a vender who called her “crazy” and complained that she was being overbearing trying to get them to deliver what they were contracted to deliver.

 That made me sad. I’d seen an e-mail like that written about me about a dozen years ago. And then there was the office Christmas party where a drunken employee in the buffet line blurted, “I hear you are a real bitch.”  I was crushed. I thought to myself, “I am not a bitch. I am a big marshmallow with real feelings that hurt. I’m just trying to do a good job. Don’t you get that?”

I didn’t understand that strong, bold women give off an energy that threatens insecure people. We have to watch every word so we aren’t misinterpreted.  So, if you’re wondering what to do to be more effective, try these steps:  

  1. If you are angry about something, try to wait a day to say or write anything. Cool down as much as you can.
  2. Always re-read every bit of your correspondence out loud, and do it in the shrillest, bitchiest tone of voice possible – because that may well be the way it is interpreted.
  3. Do not immediately defend yourself if you are told you have messed up. You have every right to make your point, but do it with a plan and don’t do it when you are emotional.
  4. Avoid crying. We are hormonal beings and it will happen. But, try to avoid it. When you feel it coming, go to the bathroom, go get a drink of water or do something else to stop or hide the tears.
  5. Understand that your job is not to win every battle, but rather, to survive to fight another day.
  6. Ask others what they think you are communicating and make sure it’s a match.
  7. If others are gossiping about you, do not be afraid to confront it and say, “I would much rather we talk directly and keep our communication open.”
  8. Build a strong, powerful support group around you to validate you when others are tearing you down.
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