Recently, while being introduced at a new company, three separate women, in three different positions of leadership, on three separate occasions, said to me something along the lines of, “Ya know, I just prefer working with men over women. I’m sorry, but women are such bitches.”

Presumably, having basically just been called a bitch three times on my first day at work would be surprising but I’d heard it so many times before I was completely desensitized. Always from women and always the message is clear- “women are not welcome here, I’ve only made it because I’m one of the boys.”

Possibly the most frustrating thing about this sentiment - aside from how often women hear it - is that the sentiment goes beyond what women say to position themselves as one of the boys and seeps over into a perception of high achieving women at large, essentially forcing them to choose between being liked or being successful.

A 2014 study of performance reviews found that the words “bossy,” “abrasive,” “strident,” and “aggressive” were used to describe women when they lead; while words like “emotional” and “irrational” were used to describe women when they objected. Additionally, these words showed up with significantly higher frequency on performance reviews of women than of men.

The same research also found that women got significantly more critical feedback. When men received critical feedback, they were given constructive suggestions about what skills to develop; conversely, the suggestions for improvements given to women was largely based on personality. As the author puts it, “Women are given constructive suggestions – and told to pipe down.”

I know what you’re thinking - Maybe those women are abrasive, aggressive, strident, etc. After all, haven’t those women had to fight their way into positions of leadership? Perhaps they do need to improve their personality. Maybe they really are “bitches.”

Maybe. A study published by the Harvard Business Review sought to answer that question as well by having men and women wear sensors at work. I’ll spare you the in-depth analysis of the article and just tell you the study found that men and women act the same but are treated differently- even by fellow women.

Essentially, when women exhibit the same behaviors as men, especially those associated with succeeding in the workplace- we shun them.

You might be familiar with the high school version, “I’ve always had more guy friends than girl friends; I just click more with guys than girls,” which is ironically always a discussion in a group of girls nodding in agreement.

Now, I truly believe that most people, most of the time are not trying to be malicious. A combination of self-preservation, social norms, and the nervous desire to impress someone new creates a perfect storm for people to recite (and accept) clichés they should have outgrown eons ago.

It starts with us, ladies. And it can start with one small conversation at a time. But tread lightly here. Your response could mean the difference in shifting her paradigm or deepening it.
So with that in mind, I had to take (an embarrassingly long) time to decide what message I wanted to send and how to do it effectively. In the past, I’d give an obliging laugh of camaraderie to say “Yeah, I get it. I’m one of the guys too.” Then I’d walk away dumbfounded, kicking myself for such a betrayal.

But after giving it some thought, I waited for my opening, and it didn’t take long. The next time a female counterpart began to go down the “women are bitches” rabbit hole, I didn’t follow. Instead I said, “How interesting. I’ve had amazing experiences working with smart, driven, and forward-thinking women.”

Which opened a dialogue.

“Oh really?” she said, sort of perplexed that her sentiment wasn’t being mirrored. Perplexed but not offended.

“Sure. The women in my life have been excellent. And I don’t think that mine is a unique experience.”

Silence. Because what could she do? Start calling our female colleagues out one by one? That would have been wildly inappropriate. Or did she see for the first time that her “right hand man” was a woman?

Our meeting proceeded with no further comment. She didn’t feel like I’d called her down and I didn’t spend the rest of the hour chastising myself for not speaking up. And she hasn’t repeated it since.

I called my best friend later that night to tell her about my victory. I was sure she would be impressed and that I would have passed a torch of wisdom on. She had a quicker approach.

“I usually just say ‘Wow! That comment sets us back at least 50 years!’ and wait.”

I wish I’d have thought of that!

Our words can pigeonhole us into harmful gender stereotypes or they can crack away at the foundation. The power is in both what we do say and what we don’t. And the choice is ours.