07/26/2013 02:26 pm ET Updated Sep 25, 2013

Am I a Bitch in Sheep's Clothing?


Years ago, I owned a summer day camp for kids. It was one of nine camps operating under the same name in different locations. I was the only woman that headed one. We had a new bus company one summer and a week before camp began, I went to the manager, who I'll call Al, with my bus routes. We'd never met and when I introduced myself, he put his arm around my shoulders and said, "Sweetheart, we have a problem and I'm sure a nice girl like you will work with me the way all the guys did."

We had trips scheduled on Wednesdays. Al explained that wasn't a good day for his drivers. There was something they had to take care of while the buses weren't in use, and it had to be Wednesday. He emphasized that the guys who ran the other camps were changing their trips to Thursday. I told him that I wouldn't be able to get the same trips at that late date. Al said the guys were working it out. I explained that none of them were mothers, like me. I understood what an inconvenience if would be for the mothers of my campers to change trip day a week before camp started. The drop-off time was different and they had to arrange for childcare. And there were other changes in routine.

I took his hand off my shoulder and with a smile said, "WE don't have a problem." His face lit up until I continued, gently, "YOU have a problem, I have a contract that says Wednesday is trip day. And while the guys may not care about the quality of activities for their kids, I do." He argued and I told him to pay attention to which camp he got the most business from in the future.

It was all said in a polite, friendly tone. Afterwards, he called my office and complained to the guy who booked the buses that I was a bitch in sheep's clothing -- a woman who fooled him by being nice, sweet, friendly and polite, who seemed like she'd be agreeable, but who stood her ground. When it was repeated to me, I asked if a man refused to change his camp schedule a week before the first day would be called names or just a good businessman? He just laughed. Women are expected to be nice. I was nice, but I was empowered enough to stand up for my kids.

I call labels like "bitch," "selfish," "aggressive," etc. poison word darts, often said in anger by a guy who doesn't get his way with a woman or thrown at us to make us too uncomfortable to stand our ground or be assertive about what we want. "Bitch" seems to be the kind of word that just rolls off people's lips faster than cookie crumbs when women don't give them their way. But holding fast to the terms of my contract didn't make me a bitch. And it wasn't my fault he assumed that a woman who is nice would also be pushover.

It's an old story that hasn't changed enough. Men can be aggressive and abrasive and earn respect, but women get called names when we stand up for ourselves, even nicely. After being an agreeable people-pleaser for many years and wanting to be able to assert myself while still being a nice person, getting called a "bitch in sheep's clothing" told me I was making progress toward earning respect. Labels like "bitch" are meant to make you return to being agreeable, but you'll lose respect if you let it.

A few years later, I brought my bus routes to Al. At that point, my numbers had doubled and I needed more buses than any of the other eight camps. Al came up and shook my hand and asked if there was anything else he could do for me. He treated me with the respect I hadn't gotten when we first met, as did everyone at the company. It taught me that women will earn respect if we don't cave from initial attempts to break our resolve with name-calling. And we don't have to be real bitches to get it.

I've become patient about getting respect and roll with any backlash to my assertiveness at first. If you stand up for what you want, with courtesy and friendliness, most likely you'll eventually get the respect you want and learn, as I call my book, that Nice Girls Can Finish First. Nowadays, if I'm called a bitch for asserting myself or expecting to get my way, I just say, "Thank you."