Do you know a female leader who you think is tough, bossy or even a bitch?

What does she do to make you think that?

Consider this. Perhaps she is merely trying to do her job and be seen as competent.

Competent or Soft?

Looking competent is problematic for women because perceptions of competence are still based on male stereotypes. If you’re thinking it’s because it’s a man’s world and they make the rules, think again.

The Catalyst Group found that both women and men made similar judgements about competence.

Women rated men as being better at the masculine ‘take charge’ behaviours associated with ‘competence’. On the flip side, women rated women as better at the feminine ‘take care’ behaviours which are perceived as ‘soft’. Unfortunately, ‘soft’ doesn’t equal competent.

The bottom line … women think that men appear more competent than women.

Take Charge Sisters!

Surely this isn’t hard to fix? Women just need to learn how to ‘take charge’ more.

If only it were that simple. In another study, the Catalyst Group found that when women exhibited ‘take charge’ behaviours they were judged as ‘too aggressive, rigid, uncaring, and self-promoting’. Again, women were as likely to make these judgements about other women.

This is known as the double-bind. Women in leadership face a double standard: they are supposed to be both competent and feminine.

Women Leading WomenDouble Bind Graphic

Things get particularly tricky for female leaders’ relationships with other women at work.

In my post, The Sisterhood Rules Revealed, I discussed the relationship expectations women have of each other.

Take a look at this graphic to see the delicate balancing act that female leaders face.

Is She Really a Bitch?

Let’s get back to that tough, bossy or even bitchy female leader that you were thinking of.

Does she demonstrate one of more of the following behaviours?


Confident and driven

A direct communication style

Is decisive

Takes charge

Focusses on task completion

Doesn’t socialise much

Doesn’t share personal details

Before you react, ask yourself the following questions.

How would I react if a man did the same thing?

Is she really being bossy or is she just being the boss because that’s her role?

Am I taking things personally when they’re about work?

Am I putting her in a double-bind?

Is she aloof or just trying to stay professional?

When you’re thinking about these questions cut her some slack.

Consider extending a hand rather than getting defensive. She’s only human and it’s pretty challenging for women in leadership to get the balance right. If she succeeds, she’s opening up more opportunities for other women and you might be a beneficiary.

If you decide that she’s really a bitch, then you have some decisions to make.

Have you worked for a female leader who got the balance right? What did she do that worked?

Please share your thoughts and any constructive comments section below.