The Sad Truth About Assertive Women

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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There’s a scene in The Proposal where Sandra Bullock’s character, a go-getting publishing executive who is first called “Satan’s Mistress,” busts a move by a campfire, while chanting the lyrics to “Get Low” with Betty White. It is the first time we see this incredibly successful woman as a human being — it’s hilarious, ridiculous, and all sorts of wonderful.

This is, of course, only halfway through the movie. For the most part, successful women have been portrayed in pop culture as cold and heartless — a "bitch," essentially. There’s Miranda in The Devil Wears Prada, obviously, Katharine from Working Girl, Patty Hewes in Damages. Turn to real life, and you’ll find Maureen Dowd saying Hillary Clinton ‘"scrubbed out the femininity, vulnerability, and heart;” employees describing Marissa Mayer as “cold” and “unwilling to listen;” and Ellen Pao getting criticized for “sharp elbows.”

Many women have had the experience of being labeled a "bitch," says social psychologist Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, author of No One Understands You And What To Do About It. And, most of the time, it has to do with social stereotypes about how women should behave, and what "smart" looks like. 

“Studies have shown that I don’t have to believe that women aren’t good at math, just knowing that the stereotype exists means I can still be affected by it,” Halvorson says. “As long as society at large sort of believes this, it’s still rooting around your brain, influencing how you see people.”

So what does that have to do with our perception of powerful women — or powerful people in general? “First, we learn to stereotype that competence and warmth are inversely related,” Halvorson says. Past studies, she notes, have shown that when people write a letter to a stranger and want to seem smart, they come off as cold, and emotionless. “But, if they’re asked to show warmth and friendliness, people will do things like not use any words more than six letters long,” Halvorson says. “It’s like, if we want to be liked we play dumb. If we want to be respected we kinda act like assholes.”

What happens in the work setting is exactly the same — people in positions of power tend to exude competence, but forget to project any sort of warmth. With women, however, it’s particularly difficult, thanks to pre-existing stereotypes. “We learn that the stereotype of a woman is loving, caring, warm, kind — but not particularly a go-getter,” Halvorson says. Think Marilyn Monroe — the uber-femme archetype. “People remember her as a ditzy blonde,” Halvorson says, “but she wrote poetry; she was someone who had a lo