In 1985, while my mother was working as an insurance claims specialist, she thoroughly investigated a roof collapse at a large office building. She inspected the roof herself, interviewed witnesses and did significantly more than any of her male colleagues would have done, which she knew because they told her so, repeatedly. Upon discovering that the collapse was the result of a bird nesting problem that she had warned the insured about a year earlier, and which they had done nothing to abate, she denied the claim. This greatly angered the insured and the agent who wrote the policy, inciting them to launch multiple complaints against her, but ultimately, they admitted that she was right. The insurance company kept the agent and the agent kept the insured's business, and all was right in the world.
Months later, however, the head of the claims department was giving a talk at their big annual meeting and suddenly said to the 2,000 assembled employees there, "And ask Tierney if she plans to take down the whole company with her pigeon poop crusade." It was not said as a joke. Immediately after this snide comment, the next order of business was to give an award to a claims adjuster who had saved the company $16,000 on a single claim.
My mom went above and beyond the call of her job, saved the company hundreds of thousands of dollars, didn't cost them any business, and for that, was mocked in front of all of her colleagues. One of her male counterparts somehow saved them a fraction of that and was given an award. Nobody involved would have ever seen this as a male-female issue, but it was. The same complaints would not have been lodged or entertained, the nasty comment would not have been made, and the award would have been give to the right person if the roof collapse claim had been denied by someone with a penis.
But that was 30 years ago. Clearly things are much better for women in the workplace now. Aren't they?
This week a video went viral of a group of female business school students owning the word, "bitch." Anyone paying attention would understand that that is the point they are making. They are reminding women that in today's corporate world, if someone calls you a bitch, it must mean you're doing something right. It must mean that you are standing your ground, staying strong, refusing to back down for yourself or your clients, demanding what you're worth, claiming your rightful place in the hierarchy -- all those things that every book on female leadership tells us we should be doing. All those things that cause us to be called bitches.
So many critics of this parody refuse to acknowledge the inequalities for women in the workplace, both in perception and reward, instead clinging to insignificant, intended-to-be-funny moments in the video as a means of saying, "Aha! You're never going to succeed if you behave that way." One of my most evolved and erudite male friends commented: "Ladies in business who are emulating their aggressive male colleagues, you are not bitches. You're assholes, just like they are, and frankly, if the best solution you've got is "be as much of a jerk as they are," we're not getting anywhere."
I am stunned that anyone who has ever worked in any workplace cannot see that men succeeding in their jobs are not considered assholes, and yet, when women behave in the exact same way, they are often viewed as bitches. Tough negotiating, asking for more money, refusing to do someone else's job for them, refusing to be the one who gets coffee or takes notes when you're the only women in the room and some man has just asked you to (which happened to me more than once, both as a securities lawyer and an investment banker) all make someone see us as bitches, or difficult, or assholes, when that same behavior gets men respect (not that a man would ever have to refuse to get coffee because he wouldn't be asked in the first place).
We cannot dismiss the issues facing women in the workplace simply because one smart, funny group of students included a bondage shot in their parody video. Women excel in law and business school, and have been 50 percent of the graduating classes for about two decades now, but still only have 10 percent representation in the upper echelons in those industries. Female-owned start-ups get a fraction of the investment that male-owned start-ups do (per capita, not just in total). In a study of performance reviews, linguist Kieran Snyder discovered that the word "abrasive" appeared in 17 out of 94 reviews of female executives, but not a single time in men's reviews. Are we to conclude that women are just naturally more abrasive than men, or is it that women doing the same job in the same way as their male counterparts are viewed more negatively? I think we all know it's the latter, but if some want to continue to deny it, there's nothing the rest of us can do except glance back at them clinging to their rationalizations and self-delusion as we move forward towards workplace equality.
It's almost 2015 -- 30 years since my mother was publicly ridiculed for being good at her job. How are we still having these conversations? The person kicking ass in that negotiation might have ovaries, but that doesn't require her to smile sweetly and make sure everyone is okay with the outcome of this deal. She has an agenda, just like everyone else, and if her agenda wins, that does not make her a bitch, it makes her a success.
I love the fact that these students are telling women to embrace the word, "bitch," but don't for one second think that women are only called bitches in the boardroom when they behave like assholes. They're called that when they behave like leaders, and if this video reminds us all that it's time to get over that word, and hold our ground, and own it, then these young women have truly succeeded and I applaud them.
Valerie Alexander is the author of How Women Can Succeed in the Workplace (Despite Having "Female Brains"), which takes a frank and honest approach to examining how women can compete on a playing field designed by men to reward their achievements. Her latest book, Success as a Second Language will be released in January.