March 8, 2018

SONG | Female Leaders Aren’t Bitches

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I already know how this will go. I’m standing up to deliver a speech in front of an organization’s executive board, my name adorning the title of president, but my face screaming something else to the panel that eyes me with raised eyebrows. I’m petitioning a policy yet again — I’m angry, I’m invigorated, I’m explosive. I get a few eye rolls. Someone clears their throat.

The familiar feeling of shame washes over me. Am I being overly emotional, am I causing unwanted drama? I pause mid-sentence. Standing there with a collared shirt and my hair falling over my face, I am overcome by the familiar sense of being unjustified to hold my place at the head of the table. I am stepping out of line, I am being overbearing, I know it. I sit down.

Every female leader has spent her life trying to walk the fine line of being bold but not bitchy, driven but not anal and kind but not a pushover. She has juggled trying to be sociable but not fake, passionate but not neurotic, focused but not hard-headed. But trying to find that line time and time again has broken something vulnerable, has made so many young girls curl in a corner of a room and wonder what is wrong with them; ask themselves why they are problematic no matter how hard they try. That line is almost impossible for anyone to walk on, and anyone who tries is destined to fall; but we will get back to that line time and time again, so often that we forget we are even doing it.

My best friend who works with me on an e-board asked me a month ago why I am “so soft” about everything. He asked me this because we constantly stay up until 3 a.m. venting about the same issues, peppered with the same expletives and exasperated sighs. “Why can’t you just tell this stuff to the board?” he kept asking me.

I didn’t know how to answer him for the longest time. My half-hearted responses were that I might lose my respect as a leader, that people might think I’m being negative, that it might ruin my friendships. And finally when he asked me again one night, I said, “Because they’ll think I’m bitchy.”

My answer didn’t make me think twice. It felt like a natural answer, like a matter of fact, no angry connotation intended. It wasn’t until I sat on my bed the next night and thought about our conversation, when I realized, why is it that I have never thought of him that way? Why is it when he speaks out with the same concerns, he is passionate, he is determined, but I am afraid they will think of me as crazy?

Time and time again I have watched my male colleagues stand up, face heated and eyes focused, demanding justice and fairness. They pound their fist down or simply sit at their seat and raise their voice by a notch. I have seen how it quiets down a room, pulls everyone closer to them, makes everyone stop and listen. Even me — I am leaning in, I am absorbing every word, because I know they are right, they are saying things I would say too.

But time and time again I have watched my female friends stand up in the same fashion, with the same words of fairness poised on their tongues, with the same altruistic motives as the man sitting next to them. They have read the same number of books before delivering this speech, have practiced in the foggy bathroom mirror the same thousands of times, have wrung their hands in nervousness under their collared shirts with the same force. But why will she leave the room after a speech and feel like she has pissed everyone off, when her colleague will be renowned for what he has done?

There is something about a woman’s anger that is perceived as territorial. Defensive. Negative. When they raise our voice they are nagging, when they point a finger they are aggressive. I have heard every type of description for every female leader that has stood her ground: anal, type-A, neurotic, crazy.

We pledge that we are not anti-feminists, that we would never say such a thing. Yet how thoroughly has this discriminating mentality become ingrained that even my own female friends believe it, that I answered my friend, “they’ll think I’m bitch” so naturally? How much has this sentiment seeped into our subconscious that even I believed it as I stood at the table, and the other women sitting at the table believed it too? How many times have we watched one of our woman colleagues and cringed because we think she is too nitpicky, she is too aggressive?

We are all contributing to this dialogue. This is not a play on a gender card. This is not a let’s-bash-on-males card either. This is a reality card; men and women alike have come to believe this perception that our female leaders are too emotional. Perhaps when a woman stands up at the table, she feels the same wave of anger as the man next to her. Perhaps it is because she is “emotional,” or she feels aggressive, but what if she has a good reason to be? It just takes a moment to listen to her, to learn from her, to give her the same chance as we do our male leaders. Anyone should be able stand up for themselves and be seen as outspoken and virtuous and bold. But why is it only that half of us are right now?
Kelly Song is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at ksong@cornellsun.com. The Songbird Sings runs biweekly on Thursdays.