A couple of things lately have brought this topic to mind.
Firstly, we've got Serena Williams "freaking out" at a judge at the US Tennis Open:
I'd like to contrast this "freak out" with your average, run-of-the-mill John McEnroe freak outs:
Now, how exactly did Serena deserve to lose the match and be forced to apologize publicly, while McEnroe is encouraged by the crowd and his sponsors, over time this behavior becoming his "signature"?
Next we've got Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, branded as an Ice Queen Bitch. Is she really though? Or is she the Editor-in-Chief because she is decisive, demanding and dare I say it, masculine in her way of operating her office?
According to Salon, "she is, by all accounts, a tough, demanding boss, a person who expects nothing short of excellence from herself and others." This behavior, this expectation of work ethic and the demand for excellence is something typical and expected of male leaders, but less commonly expected or accepted with female leaders. According to Anna herself, "[she is] very decisive and [tries] to give very clear direction to the people [she is] working with," which seems completely reasonable. (Anna has been in the media a lot lately because she is promoting a documentary about the production of the September issue of Vogue.)
When I say her behavior is 'masculine', I mean to say that she is not coddling her staff like children. She is not crying as she tells you what you did was wrong because she feels so guilty about mentioning it. I mean to say it seems that she is in control and makes no bones about it. You do not doubt her leadership at any time. It sounds as if working for Anna is like working for your typical male boss. It seems she is calm and consistent and demanding. Annoyingly masculine traits really. Honestly, sometimes it would be nice to see a male boss with some self-doubt.
Unfortunately I believe that women have obstacles in the way of their success that are their own fault. Yes, sexism and male dominance keep us out of high levels of corporate and political structures. Yes, the structure of society is not our fault per se, but there are things we definitely do to ourselves as a gender. At times we are our own harshest critics, and each others worst enemy.
Ladies are raised to be just that, ladies; people who don't say impolite things, are kind and generous and compassionate with people they are close to. It is only the 'tom boy' who is not expected to be that way - and tom boys are expected to "grow out of it" and become ladies eventually. Being kind and polite and compassionate - all good things in the right context, but are these things standing in the way of our ability to express how we really feel? Men are not encouraged to express their feelings publicly - but when they do, no one doubts the authenticity. When women do the same, the are branded as 'being emotional' - in fact we brand ourselves that way. Why do women so often feel that what they think or want is somehow less important than anyone else?
I doubt very much that Wintour got to her level of success by worrying about what people thought of her decisions and instructions. I doubt Serena got to her level of success by being polite and popular and ladylike. Does this mean these women are any less women, any less nurturing or compassionate? Absolutely not! These women have apparently found a way to balance who they are in life with who they should be in the workplace. They know the context in which to be polite, and the context in which to get shit done.
Professionalism. Confidence. Somehow these qualities are not encouraged in women. We're told to be confident, to have good self esteem, but are we encouraged when we show signs of it? Instead we are actually taught that it is somehow rude to express our opinion if it differs with someone else's, and that we should be nice to everyone. Worse still, women are the great at punishing each other for confident behavior. We are quick to dismiss a woman who is confident as a bitch, a whore, a meanie. In the office if you are professional, women call you the ice princess (seen it!). If you are confident in your opinions, people say you are a know-it-all (been there!).
Why can't we respect other women for their strength and confidence meanwhile applauding them for their ability to leave their personal lives and nurturing side at home?
I raise these questions with little in the way of answers other than to suggest that holding yourself back in the workplace in any way in order to protect the feelings of someone else is silly and you should stop that right now. Life and work are different things and not agreeing is ok - it isn't personal, it is professional. Being tough and decisive might not make you popular with other women, but it will make you feel better about yourself. Because being confident is a rolling train, once you get on it gets easier to do.