Being Called a Bitchy Boss?

Lawrence Polsky, MD,

Being Called a Bitchy Boss?

Are women business leaders still subjected to a double standard and called “bitchy” just for doing their jobs? Based on the responses of a recent survey we conducted, the answer is yes.

Working as an executive team coach over 20 years, 90 percent of the leaders I have coached are women. I have found the reason they are called bitchy or some version of that, by their team or colleagues, often comes down to one thing: the perception of being too assertive.

We recently surveyed 221 professionals on this topic. Among respondents, 72 percent reported they have had a “bitchy boss.” More women (76 percent) than men (64 percent) reported this as a problem. Younger workers were also more likely to report having a bitchy boss, indicating this perception has increased as more women take on leadership roles.

What can women leaders do, in a role that by definition requires assertiveness, to change negative perceptions?

1. Make feedback a personal matter. Giving employees feedback privately can make the difference. I coached a leader who was feared by her team because she would give them feedback in the open space where they all work. She changed her approach and began addressing them individually. Soon, her reputation changed completely. Her employees saw her as a caring boss who looked out for their good.

2. Try Side to Side. Whether watching sports, sitting at a bar, or walking a golf course, men often do things side by side. Women favor being face to face as they sit around a table, meet for a book or get together for a meal. Sometimes intense direct eye contact can be perceived as challenging, judgmental or aggressive. To reduce the impression that you are overly aggressive, try sitting side to side when discussing touchy subjects. When you make eye contact, soften your gaze so your expression is welcoming and open.

3. Smile and say hello. We once worked with an executive who faced the threat of a racial discrimination action being filed. When we interviewed her team, we found a small thing was creating a big problem. She was so task oriented that each morning she would charge in to her office without saying hello to anyone. This behavior alienated members of her team. In a team-building event we convened, a spontaneous conversation unfolded about saying hello in the morning. She got the message, and the discrimination suit was never filed.

4. Know when to fight. Susan, the new leader of a technology group, was under pressure to drive performance to the next level, but couldn’t. Her team complained she was "too aggressive." Whenever a new idea emerged from the team, she would debate it and try to make it better. This left her team feeling insulted and micromanaged. Through coaching, Susan learned to choose when to fight to improve an idea, and when to let her team have the “winning” idea. This created a more collaborative environment. Soon, she was promoted to run four departments.

5. Share your heart. Opening up to your team connects you as human beings, and builds trust. So don't be afraid, in the privacy of your team, to open up and let them know what drives you and what makes you who you are. You will be surprised how it will turn around perceptions.

6. Don't Overcompensate. Paula was the only woman on the management team in an engineering company. She tried to make herself heard by being loud and overpowering among her male peers. This wasn’t working for her or them. She learned to ask a lot of questions, and to understand their point of view first before presenting hers. This increased sensitivity enabled her to come across professional, strong and authentic, and get her views heard and included.

7. Use the Ed Koch Approach. The former New York mayor was famous for walking through the city asking, "How am I doing?" It is far more effective to use this approach before issues arise. One leader I coached was leading a critical project. Her team told me they thought she was a bit over talkative. With this new information she was able to make minor adjustments, talk less, and ask more questions. This increased morale and productivity.

All of these strategies work. I have seen it personally. Yet none of these strategies are one-shot deals. Integrate them into your style, with regularity, and you will have an opportunity to break down barriers and change perceptions.

About the Author 

Executive team coach Lawrence Polsky is a managing partner at The global leadership and team consulting firm has transformed the teams of more than 30,000 leaders in 11 industries in 30 countries on five continents since 2008. focuses on boosting bottom-line results, consistently helping their clients achieve 200 to 6600 percent ROI. Visit