The Bitch Paradigm: Why Women Still Can't Win

Women should stand up for themselves when the situation calls for it, but know that change will ultimately come when we simply choose to ignore the double standard and hold ourselves to the same leadership standards as men.
07/14/2011 06:10 pm ET Updated Sep 13, 2011

Most of us have heard this riddle:

"Ok, so, there's a man and his son driving late at night. Suddenly, a deer jumps out in front of the car and causes an accident. The father is all right, but the son is rushed to the hospital and needs emergency surgery. He gets to the O.R., the surgeon looks down and exclaims, 'I can't do this surgery! This is my son! '"

After a dramatic pause, the teller asks,

"Now, how is this possible?'

You know how the typical guesses go.

"Uhhhh...the driver was his step-father?"

False.

"He has two dads! They're gay!"

Love it, but no.

Finally comes the reveal:

"You guys! The surgeon was his mother."

Cue some slight embarrassment, and finally, the sudden realization that while women hold some of the most powerful positions in the United States (see: Hillary Clinton, Secretary of State, Nancy Pelosi, Former Speaker of the House, etc.) we still haven't really changed the way we think about leadership roles and women.

And there's proof, too. As EurekaAlert! posted, a new meta-analysis from Northwestern University's results show that, even in 2011, power roles continued to be perceived as culturally masculine.

Now, before you indignantly forward this blog to your husband, boyfriend, brother(s) or father, let it be known that men are not the only culprits. The cause of this calamity is very much a co-ed. (I should know: when I told the above riddle recently, it stumped quite a few of my lady friends.)

Since a meta-analysis collects and studies done on a particular topic over a span of years (in this analysis, the first study used was from 1973), researchers have the advantage of seeing how the results have changed over time. It is here, as Alice Eagly, professor of psychology and a co-author of the study told me, where women can find a tiny ray of hope in the mostly disappointing results.

"Women should be encouraged that leadership is culturally not as extremely masculine as it was in the past," she said. "That's progress because it makes leadership roles more accessible to women and easier to negotiate when in such a role."

Call me naive, but I kind of hoped that by now the traditional "leadership traits" (assertive, strong, competitive) would have become a little more androgynous. I don't know why I thought that, though, when years ago a male colleague jokingly (it was funny to him) accused me of PMSing when I defended a creative decision I made on a project. Or after watching and re-watching the horrible cat-calling Australian Senator Penny Wong received during a debate a few months ago.

At the end of the day, a woman who stands her ground in a position of power is still fairly likely to be seen as either a bitch, on her period, or a bitch on her period.

No one experienced this first hand like Hillary Clinton. Back in the 2007/2008 presidential it seemed like she couldn't do anything right. When she cried in Connecticut, people wondered if she was fit to sit in the oval office. When she was composed, stoic, and strong they called her cold, bitchy, robotic. Well, that's just great.

As I thought about what advice I could possibly give to women about this, Eagly provided a more comprehensive breakdown on the struggle Clinton faced.

"Women such as Hillary Clinton are expected to act like good leaders -- therefore, assertive, competitive, and strong (these are culturally masculine qualities). Simultaneously, they are expected to act like good women -- therefore, friendly, compassionate, and nice (these are culturally feminine qualities)," she said. "Conveying both masculine and feminine qualities requires a difficult balancing act."

So what can be done?

Maybe the only way to fix this is to continue to do what we're doing, only louder and more often.

Stand up for yourself when the situation calls for it, but know that change will ultimately come when we simply choose to ignore the double standard and hold ourselves to the same leadership standards as men.

After all, those roles are supposedly "easier" for men because the traits associated with them are traditionally -- though not biologically-- male. Oddly enough, this gives me hope. After all, how are new traditions made? Through persistence. Through repetition. I think that's something we can handle.