Recent years have shown social progress towards gender equality in many fields. Yet women still face adversity throughout society.
In 2014, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to female education advocate Malala Yousafzai. The Fields Medal, arguably the most prestigious math award in the world, was granted to Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to ever receive this accolade. Although these two awards may seem insignificant in the grand scheme of history, they represent the small strides in gender equality.
On a national level, efforts are being concentrated towards supporting women in their reproductive rights. In October 2014, the Supreme Court blocked laws in Texas that would impose strict regulations on abortion clinics — this decision supported a woman’s right to control her body.
However, despite these significant advances, many women are still subject to what is commonly referred to as the “bitch dichotomy.”
The bitch dichotomy is the phenomenon that women, when exhibiting powerful leadership traits, are seen as “bossy” or “bitchy.” Being called a bitch is a routine part of being a woman in power; it comes with the territory. However, men in power are rarely ever called bitches or the male equivalent. Why is this so?
Let’s start with one simple fact: being a leader is difficult. It’s a skill that requires a range of qualities for both males and females. Often, a female leader is called a bitch if she is taking the lead (as a position of leadership requires) or weak if she exhibits signs of kindness or flexibility (another characteristic necessary of a leadership position). It is nearly impossible to find a balance between these two, and women in power often have to suffer being called a bitch for the benefit of furthering the progress of the organization or group that they are leading.
One nursery rhyme comes to mind in regards to the use of cruel words: “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Although this phrase carries a meaningful message about remaining unaffected by harsh words, in reality, words hurt and they carry a lot of power. Being called a bitch for exhibiting characteristics of a leader deters a lot of girls or women from pursuing positions of power. The bitch dichotomy is not only hurtful and harmful, but depressive of potential as well.
One sector of the workforce where it is the job of a woman to be bossy is the film industry. When Albany High School students were asked to name off directors that they know, not once was a woman’s name mentioned. The usual big-name directors were acknowledged- Michael Bay, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and the Coen Brothers among others- but alas, there was no female representation. Our peer’s inability to list female directors, while harrowing, is not really their fault. According to Women Make Media, a non-profit organization supporting women in film, women in the film industry are extremely underrepresented, with females accounting for only 16% of directors, writers, cinematographers, editors, and producers.
The role of a director requires strong leadership skills, which usually leads to name calling. In the case of male directors, words with positive connotations such as “assertive” or “effective” are used. However, in the case of female directors, words with negative connotations such as bossy or bitch are used. The disparity in labeling of people in positions of power does not just apply to film, but to almost all industries. In order to bridge the divide, we first must recognize the roots of this dichotomic culture.
English teacher Jessica Park provided some insight into the bitch dichotomy, “This is a way for people to undermine a female’s authority especially if they feel threatened. By calling them bossy or bitch, it makes them less likely to assert their powers.” When people feel as though their power or role is threatened, they will often find some form of impairing the other person’s influence.
Kevin James, humanities teacher, also theorized on the roots of the bitch dichotomy, “Women are supposed to be nurturing. Men are supposed to go outside the cave and kill game. I think it goes back to some pretty primal assumptions about what men do and what men and women are supposed to be like.”
Park also believes that society teaches women in leadership to take on the bitch role, “women have learned, because it’s been modeled, that this is a way to get some semblance at power although this isn’t necessarily true anymore.”
James argued that women act this way because their options are limited, “women are allowed to operate in kind of a narrower range than men are. You know, no one can be too nice or too agreeable because then they will get eaten alive,” he stated. Not only will being too personable suppress a woman’s voice, “but if a woman is too forceful or seen as too aggressive, or too pushy or whatever, she will engender a lot more hostility than if a man did the same thing,” said James.
Teachers and students alike agree that the bitch dichotomy has little influence both in the classroom and in the school club dynamic at Albany High School in particular. Park notes that disparities in treatment of male and female students exists, but has little presence at here, “when it comes to classroom behavior, boys tend to get away with inexcusable behavior because ‘boys will be boys’ but I don’t necessarily see our teachers treating them differently.”
Debate Club historian Alan Zhang describes the club’s gender makeup, noting that while the club has mostly females, males tend to control the leadership roles. However, it is the sole female officer who has the largest presence in the club, “we’re all senior boys except for Sarah Xu, who is a sophomore. Sarah has been incredibly involved with everything this year. She’s gotten forms done, scheduled intramural debates, and made posters for the club. Working with her has been a pleasure and you can see how much everybody in the club respects her.”
Sarah Xu, vice president of Debate Club, is a strong believer in the power of women in leadership, and this drives Xu in her motivation as a leader and hard worker, “In my experience, women help other women. And this plethora of powerful women is not some freakish Albany experience but rather strong women are everywhere.”
Not only Xu is aware of the the potential of women.
“Women are a.) pretty convinced that they’re as competent as men, and b.) pretty convinced that society doesn’t afford them the same opportunities,” James pointed out.
The bitch dichotomy will remain present in our larger society unless we take action to change how both males and females perceive gender roles. Park advocates for a new meaning of masculinity, “we have to change the way boys view what it means to be masculine, because too much of that is couched in being the authority figure and ‘holding it together’ rather than feeling their emotions.”
James agreed, “I think it’s really men we have to start on, that’s whose consciousness needs to be raised.”
The way in which women hold leadership and power needs to see change and growth as well, Park states, “I would say there needs to be a wider diversity of women leaders, so we can’t stereotype them as being submissive or a bossy bitch.”