Avoiding the dreaded B-word
How women executives can stand up for themselves without being labeled uncooperative, or worse.
(Fortune) -- Dear Annie: How can I achieve a balance between standing up for myself at work and being regarded by colleagues as a bitch? Overall, I'm a pretty easygoing person, I try to help others out when I can, and I volunteer for assignments. The problem: When I need to say "no" or point out that I just can't take on anything else because I'm already buried in work, I get accused of being uncooperative, not a team player, or "bitchy." But when my male counterparts do and say the same things, no one seems to mind. What am I doing wrong, or what can I do to change the perception? -No Prima Donna
Dear NPD: "When men speak up for themselves, they usually do it in a very business-based, proactive way, and without emotion," notes Rebecca Shambaugh, head of the Shambaugh Leadership Group, a McLean, Va., consulting firm that has worked with IBM, Marriott, Northrop Grumman, and many other companies on how to develop and retain female managers. "They'll say, 'Sorry, fellas, I just can't take this one on.' Women, though, often tend to be more reactive, sometimes even bordering on feeling like a victim: 'Don't they know how much work I've already got?' My guess is that this is what you're doing, probably without being aware of it - and that your resentment is coming across loud and clear."
"The good news is, you have more power in this situation than you think," says Shambaugh, who also coaches individual women on how to navigate the slippery shoals of corporate advancement. "It's about re-setting expectations. When you need to speak up for yourself, approach the conversation as 'just business'. Briefly and calmly say that you can't take on one more project and then steer the conversation toward finding solutions." In other words, watch carefully the next time one of your male co-workers says "no", and do it the way he does.
"Staying calm and unemotional when sticky issues arise takes confidence," notes Caitlin Friedman, co-author, with Kimberly Yorio, of The Girl's Guide to Being a Boss (Without Being a Bitch) (Doubleday/Broadway, $22.95). "Until you develop it, act as if you have it. This is one area where the expression 'Fake it til you make it' can really help."
The higher up you go in the organization, Friedman notes, the more you will have to manage others' perceptions of you, so you might as well get used to it now.
"The pressures are greater on women bosses, because people have different expectations," she says. "For example, if you're female, the people under you often assume that you're going to be more nurturing and motherly toward them, and toward their careers, than a man would be. Then, if you're not, you're a 'bitch.' "
She adds: "After our book came out, Kimberly and I did about 100 radio shows, and time and time again people would call in and say, 'I loved my woman boss until she started telling me what to do.' But that is what a boss does! It's okay coming from a man, but very often - still, even in these supposedly enlightened times - not from a woman."
What's the solution? "Being a boss is hard," she says. "This is why women executives need to take the time to mentor other women and share their experiences and insights, so that new female managers don't have to keep reinventing the wheel."
Do you have a mentor? It might be time to seek one out, not just for tips on avoiding the b-label, but as a sounding board on assorted other office issues, too. Feeling less isolated might give you the confidence you need to assert yourself as matter-of-factly as the guys do.