The Contradiction of Judging Other Women

UPDATED: May 27, 2024
PUBLISHED: May 13, 2016

As women, we advocate for progress—for equality and for breaking the glass ceiling. Yet, on average, women still earn 79 percent of what men earn. Even the most successful actresses, like Oscar winners Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lawrence, earn less than their male co-stars. And in the Standard & Poor’s 500, only 5 percent of companies have female CEOs.

Most women agree that change is needed in our society, businesses and communities. There are signs of progress, but there is much more work to do. In our daily lives, too.

Women can often be each other’s worst critics. We judge each other on our decision to work or not to work, our clothes, our weight, our parenting or our level of success. These biases can be subtle, or not so subtle, in what we think and say—and they perpetuate the cultural bias that we simultaneously want to change.

Related: 6 Ways Women Are Sabotaging Their Professional Success

Here are a few judgments and signs of bias that women reserve just for each other:

1. Who wears the pants in that family?

Yes, I have heard this many times—even by women I like. It’s usually asked when the woman is successful and has a point of view. This one isn’t so subtle and reflects how women see their own role in relationships.

Gender bias shows up regularly in everyday life. Take this example: A doctor went shopping for furniture with her husband, and the sales associate enthusiastically shared that everything was 20 percent off that week. She added with a wink, “Your husband is going to be very excited about that!”

2. She’s too bossy.

There are lots of adjectives you can use instead of “bossy” but that mean the same thing. “She’s being a b****.” “She’s trying too hard.” “She’s too demanding.” Men aren’t called bossy. “He gets stuff done.” “He’s tough.” “He has a plan!”

Yes, there are women—and men—who are too difficult. The true test is if you witnessed the same behavior in a man, does your view change?

As Sheryl Sandberg said, “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.’ Words like bossy send a message: Don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood.”

Beyoncé said it best. “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss.”

3. She isn’t that successful.

Women often get the “She’s not qualified” even after achieving accomplishment after accomplishment. Or the “She lucked into it,” “An important male helped her out,” or “She made a mistake.” Our filter of success has a different lens for a woman—and our bias appears.

Successful women can make some men—and women—uncomfortable, because they have stepped outside of a role traditionally expected of women.

Related: Career & Motherhood: 10 Ways to Make It Work

And, in many ways, we do it to ourselves. In our desire not to be boastful, we minimize our own success through self-deprecation or pawning off our success as luck or “being in the right place at the right time.” When I hear other women doing this (and I do this sometimes, too), I ask them to pause and consider if their male counterparts do the same. The answer is no.

4. She looks too ________.

Women face the appearance evaluation—“too this, too that.” For example, Hillary Clinton has received more coverage on her hairstyle, clothes and voice tone than any man of her stature. For men, their appearance must be extremely noticeable to receive top billing.

Particularly in business, women are faced with the double-edged sword of looking attractive, but not too attractive. And, again, as women, we do it to each other.

Carly Fiorina, a recent presidential candidate and former CEO of Hewlett Packard, was the keynote speaker at a technology conference two years ago. At the end of her remarks, the host asked her to comment on Marissa Mayer’s success as Yahoo CEO. Fiorina put the questioner on the spot. She asked, “Why are you asking me about Marissa Mayer, other than that she is also a woman? Would you ask a man to comment on another male CEO? No, you wouldn’t.”

In that awkward moment, she openly pointed out the bias in the question and that because of it, she was viewed as a former female CEO, not a former CEO. She made her point.

We need more honesty with each other on our biases and a call-out when we judge each other.

Test yourself. As we look at political candidates, community leaders, business executives and entrepreneurs, ask yourself, If this were a man, would my reaction be the same?

I recently realized my own hidden bias after a comment from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “So now the perception is, yes, women are here to stay [on the Supreme Court]. And yet when I’m asked, ‘When will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court]?’ and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’ve been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.”

Progress is needed in our society and culture. Progress is also needed in how we view each other and in the choices we make.

Related: Should a Woman Act More Like a Man to Succeed at Work?

Patti Johnson is a career and workplace expert and the CEO of PeopleResults, a change and human resources consulting firm she founded in 2004. Previously, she was a senior executive at Accenture and has been recently featured as an expert in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, NBC, Money Magazine and Working Mother. Patti is also an instructor for SMU Executive Education and a keynote speaker on “Leading Change.” Her first book, Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work & in Life, hit shelves in May 2014. Visit her website at