, ,

Women and ‘Bad Attitude’ Jail

For women, the workplace is full of catch-22s, glass ceilings, and double standards. We’ve read countless articles that call out inequities and spotlight biases. Dr. Alex Carter has convinced us to “Ask for More,” and we have the perfect metaphor for the judgments women face with the Goldilocks Syndrome (the porridge is always too hot or cold, but never just right). 

Despite all this spilled ink and women’s empowerment happy hours, I have a question for us women. Has the workplace really changed for you? 

We say we want things to be different, but colleagues and superiors still judge us for our tone of voice, attitude, or whether we seem happy. Being blazingly effective at our job is summarily overlooked if we aren’t upbeat and constantly espousing prosocial behaviors. It doesn’t matter whether we did excellent work, only if we made other people feel warm and fuzzy while doing it. The jabbing critiques — death by a thousand paper cuts:

When asking a colleague if he’d “gotten a chance to” complete a task: “It seemed like you were calling him out.”

When politely suggesting to a manager that a colleague might have googled something instead of asking for a personalized primer: “You were mean-spirited.”

When recapping a company offsite, a manager: “You didn’t seem happy. You only talked to certain people, and you were only pointing out problems.”

The worst part: It’s often not our male colleagues who are leveling these criticisms. In my singular experience, it’s more likely other women who say, rather than choke, on these judgments.


After a particularly rough work day, I was making dinner for my family. My 12-year-old daughter was telling a story about school. She spoke with great confidence. In the story, she knew she was right about something and wasn’t afraid to let the whole world know. She told them.

Feeling deflated, I suggested she consider a different approach, “Take it from me. It’s a lot easier to go along and get along. Society doesn’t embrace a woman who expresses strong opinions.”

Already fired up, she quipped back, “Well, that’s just too bad for them. Isn’t it?”

I started to tear up and turned my head so she couldn’t see. I was proud but also fearful of how many days in her working future she would feel as beaten down as I did that day. 


I want to create workplaces where all of our daughters can thrive. One where our experience is respected and our time is valued, where we can voice constructive criticism with the same degree of freedom that men do. 

We need to stop sending women to ‘bad attitude’ jail. We must allow each other to project confidence freely and express frustration openly. It’s normal. It’s healthy, and it’s OK.

When we box each other into gender stereotypes, the world gets smaller. Let’s create workplaces where our daughters can show up how they want and, above all, be champions for each other.

Mary Lazzeri is a former technology advisor and bureaucracy hacker at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Federal CIO, and United States Digital Service. She is also a co-founder of the Digital WOSB Alliance. She received a Bachelor of Communications from Boston University and a Master of Public Administration from Baruch College in New York. A native of Bethesda, Maryland, she now lives in Chicago with her husband and two daughters.

Leave a Comment

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply