Whenever I read about a troublesome female executive, I groan a bit, knowing the old "powerful men are called admirable, powerful women are called bitches" chestnut is about to be dusted off.
New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson has recently come under some scrutiny for her leadership style. According to a Politico story, Abramson, who is the first female executive editor at the paper, has been called "condescending," "uncaring," and "demoralizing" by staffers.
In three, two, one...
"Why isn’t she handing out cookies at the Page One meeting?" reads a sarcastic missive from the Daily Beast.
"Holy mother of pearl, I can't tell if this is the writer being abjectly sexist, or his sources. Or both. Ugh," tweeted Adam Weinstein of Mother Jones.
Right on time. Sigh.
I'm no expert on Jill Abramson. I've never witnessed her leadership, never heard about it firsthand. My information, and I use the term loosely in this instance, comes only from reading a few articles.
And you know what? She might be a bitch.
The truth is, some women are bitches. And some men are ... insert whatever word you choose here (perhaps an anatomical reference is coming to mind, or use bitch if you want). Some people, regardless of gender, are simply poor leaders. They lack the charisma and communication skills to be effective. They might be more concerned with who is boss than with getting the job done and promoting company morale.
Are tough women often unfairly criticized for not being nurturing enough? Of course. But is it fair to assume that a woman who is being criticized for being too abrasive is coming under that particular fire only because she is female? Absolutely not.
To assume that Abramson is being criticized because people can't handle a tough woman is crap. Maybe some can't, but I'm tired of criticism of women being blindly labeled as sexism.
I've had a number of jobs, of varying degrees of satisfaction. I've had good male bosses and bad male bosses, good female bosses and bad female bosses. I've had a lot of conversations about leadership style, some productive, some less so.
But it can be challenging to do that when criticizing a woman's leadership means having to defend that you are not, in fact, being sexist, but that you actually disagree with this person's philosophies and practices.
I'm not claiming that sexism isn't alive and well in our society. It is. It affects both women and men, and we can all be victims of it. We've come a long way, but we still have a long road ahead.
Still, I fear we have become the society who cried sexism, much like the boy who cried wolf. To dismiss criticism of a woman as nothing more than gender bias is as counterproductive as some of the unfair and antiquated expectations being visited upon all of us, men and women, every day.
Which means that when I hear about a tough lady who is undergoing scrutiny, and that chestnut, that inevitable "powerful women are labeled as bitches" philosophy makes its way into the conversation, my first question is this:
"Well, is she a bitch?"