Women often have a smaller range of acceptable behaviors at work than men. If they are too nice, they are seen as weak or manipulative. If they are too aggressive, they are judged as acting like men or typical bitches.
On the other hand, when men show traits of empathy, generosity and nurturing, they are credited for being progressive. If they are commanding, decisive and competitive, they are just a product of their testosterone.
As I was starting my working life in my twenties, a man thirty years older than me gave me an important piece of advice, "Sometimes you have to be a bitch." I quickly learned he was correct, but how I expressed my "bitchiness" depended on my position and the situation. There was a difference between being a bitch and being diplomatically assertive.
In other words, there is a fine art to female assertiveness. Although you might still be judged negatively by some for being direct and bold at any time, when you are diplomatically assertive, you are more likely to get what you want.
I learned this distinction when I was the Manager of Training for a multinational semiconductor corporation. I was passionately describing to my boss the virtue of my grand idea and my frustration with the executive team for not "getting it." He took my hand, patted it and said, "Dear, you can quit fighting now. You've made it." Although I didn't care for how he told me, he wisely forced me to look at the difference between forcing my point of view and persuading people to listen to my ideas.
The "pit bull" approach worked to help me be a great individual contributor, which earned me recognition and promotions even if I made few friends. I'm sure many people called me a bitch but by most standards, I was successful.
In the long run, my forcefulness didn't help me make the changes I wanted to see in my company. There is a difference between being strong-willed and being seen as powerful by my peers, the people I needed to support my campaigns to make a bigger difference.
These tips are useful for both genders:
Being diplomatically assertive doesn't mean backing down. It means you know how to present what you believe in a way that others will hear, understand and hopefully, align with your thinking. When enough of us model this behavior, the name-calling might stop, or not. But at least leading change will be easier.
We may not stop the name-calling, but we might change the world.