Last updated: Difficult women: Exhausted by bias, a revolution rises

Difficult women: Exhausted by bias, a revolution rises

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Difficult.

That word has become not-so-coded language often used to describe a woman — especially a woman of color — who is unwilling to be disrespected or to accept less than what she deserves.

She is the disruptor, not the worker bee. She is out front innovating, not toeing the line. She is using her voice, not waiting for permission to be heard (then overlooked and underpaid).

Words like “bossy” and “overbearing” are hurled at these kinds of women to dismiss and diminish them.

Meanwhile, our male counterparts are lauded for their “ambition” and “drive” when they exhibit similar “leadership” behaviors.

A tale as old as sexism: ‘Decisive’ men versus ‘bossy’ women

We’ve established these systemic disparities many times over. A personal favorite: white men are graded based upon their potential. Meanwhile, the rest of us are fully expected to show our work (and often fix the work of that person who had so much potential…).

As such, when women stand up for ourselves and denounce that discriminatory status quo, we are very often told, “Don’t rock the boat.”

We’re advised to be more grateful for what someone perceives as being a “good enough” opportunity for us.

Don’t be so difficult.

In reality, we’re well aware that any decision to speak up often comes with high risk. Silence will not gain us proper recognition — and often compensation — for the energy we put toward bringing something brilliant to life; for all the hours we neglected our own well-being to be a “team player.”

For all the efforts we gave toward helping people in power appear to be good at their jobs.

“Women have historically been seen as pleasing and acceptable as long as we do not step inside the very male domain of power,” said women’s leadership expert Eleanor Beaton in an interview for Bustle.

Difficult women or systematic bias? (You already know the answer.)

There are myriad examples of how true Beaton’s statement is: powerful and successful women being labeled as difficult because they challenge outdated, harmful, and unreasonably limiting ideologies.

When Gabrielle Union left America’s Got Talent in 2020, she stated that working there was “ the very definition of a toxic work environment,” stating she had experienced and witnessed racist and inappropriate behavior. Very soon after, Union was labeled “difficult” and felt she had been punished for speaking up.

In 2018, Meghan Markle was labeled “Duchess Difficult” by tabloids in part because she refused to fall in line with patriarchal traditions and an often racist set of royal rules. As an actress, Markle’s reputation seemed to be that she was friendly and relatable. However, when she became a vocal, powerful, and influential member of the British royal family, she also became “difficult.”

After singer/actress Aaliyah’s untimely death in 2001, I remember watching an interview wherein a man spoke at length about how “everyone loved Aaliyah.” (Because it is only the dead girls who are never called difficult, notes author Roxane Gay.)

At the time, as an insecure 20-something model, I was battling anxiety and undiagnosed ADHD.

There was nothing I wanted more than to be a woman everyone could love. I imagined those kinds of women as far easier and uncomplicated than I knew how to be.

Imagine using the term #BoyBoss to describe a man: Women must lead without apology

However, in hindsight, I now understand that part of what makes a woman the type of person “everyone” can love is obedience. 

Silence. Compliance. 

Don’t be too big or too loud or too much.

I will never be that woman.

I will never again manage to be silent as someone presents my work or ideas as their own — and then writes me out of my own narrative.

So I challenge anyone who reads this, regardless of how you identify: the next time you hear someone call a woman “difficult” or imply something similar, ask them why.

What did she do to warrant being called difficult?

  1. Did she ask or demand to be paid what she’s worth?
  2. Did she refuse to let someone disrespect her boundaries?
  3. Did she speak up to be recognized for something she inspired or built?

If anything like the above took place, none of it makes her difficult.
It makes her smart.

As much as some would like to pretend that “hard work” is what allows people to rise through the ranks of a company or industry, we know the reality — from data, not anecdotes — is that women are consistently spoken over and excluded.

The true difficulty is often with maintaining enough fortitude to wage battle every single day. Many of us consistently fight against systems designed to knock us down a peg or ten. We regularly confront people who are determined to ensure that a woman “knows her place.” 

As we continue rising up in our respective fields, be warned: our “place” may just be the very seat you desperately want to keep us from occupying – and we intend to make that very difficult for you.

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