Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is fond of repeating this business world double standard among groups of women: “Success and likeability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women.” So as men gain power, we like them more. As women rise in the ranks, we like them less. Jessica Valenti has proposed that women respond by ditching their “desire to be liked and accepted” altogether. “Women adjust their behavior to be likable and as a result have less power in the world,” she writes. “But the trade-off is undoubtedly worth it. Power and authenticity are worth it.”
If only bitches had it so easy. People may dislike powerful women, but being unlikable won’t necessarily help women get that power in the first place. One 2011 study found that while acting rude and disagreeable helps increase men’s earning potential in the office, the same is not true of women. When it comes to salary negotiation, even nice guys don’t finish last—they, too, are better situated than disagreeable women. So women are counseled to act like ladies when asking for a raise.
Sandberg counsels successful young women to adopt the typically male justification for their rise to the top: “What a dumb question. I’m awesome.” But at Facebook, she modeled a passive style. When Mark Zuckerberg introduced Sandberg to the company by saying that she “had really good skin,” the new COO smiled, and “didn’t flinch.”
What’s a disagreeable woman to do? This year brought a new crop of openly hostile women, real and semireal, to help us navigate society’s intolerance of rude ladies. Here’s how the female jerks of 2012 fared:
“Maya,” the CIA agent on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty; also known as “Jen” in an account by a former member of Navy SEAL Team Six. In Bigelow’s film, Jessica Chastain’s Maya is dismissed as “not Miss Congeniality” and “out of her mind” as she badgers the agency into following her lead to Al Qaeda’s No. 1. After she won the fight, the real-life agent received the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal for her work—and hit “reply all” to complain about the other agents who had won lesser awards. An anonymous tipster said her email related, “You guys tried to obstruct me. You fought me. Only I deserve the award.” Colleagues have attributed her surly attitude to frustration at not receiving an expected $16,000 salary bump after her banner year. “Do you know how many CIA officers are jerks?” one former official said. “If that was a disqualifier, the whole National Clandestine Service would be gone.”
Anne Hathaway, actress. In 2012, Hathaway put an impressive stamp on two iconic roles: She filled out the catsuit as film’s most conniving Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises and starved herself nearly to death to play Les Miz’s Fantine. But she saved her greatest performances for her promotional tours, where she’s expertly navigated sexist interview questions with sassy retorts made for celebratory GIF walls. When asked to describe her “feline fitness regime,” she condescended to her male interviewer, “What do you want? Are you trying to fit into a catsuit?” And when Matt Lauer creepily grilled Hathaway about paparazzi shots of her vagina, she told him that she was “sorry that we live in a society that commodifies the sexuality of unwilling participants.” To make her disagreeable retorts Hollywood-ready, Hathaway handles it all with a smile.
Julia Gillard, prime minister of Australia. Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister, made international news after opposition leader Tony Abbott attempted to out the speaker of the House’s “sexism” and “misogyny” to score political points. Gillard responded by aggressively shaming Abbott for his own history of misogyny. “The leader of the opposition says that people who hold sexist views and who are misogynists are not appropriate for high office,” she said in a speech to Parliament in October. “Well, I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation. Because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives, he needs a mirror.” Gillard ranked 27th on Forbes’ women in power ranking this year. The leaders of France, Holland, and the United States praised her speech.
Taylor Swift, singer-songwriter. Swift built her songwriting career by detailing how she’s been scorned by her big, bad high-profile boyfriends. Her tales of romantic persecution have made her one of the most powerful pop stars in the business, but she hasn’t ceded the right to be wronged. (In 2010’s “Mean,” she accused a music critic who gave her a bad review of “picking on the weaker man”—superstar Taylor Swift.) Of course, a powerful person with an underdog complex is just a jerk. And Swift really leaned into her jerkiness this year, crashing a Kennedy wedding with still-in-high-school boyfriend Conor (Taylor Swift does not crash parties; everyone is expected to be excited when she unexpectedly arrives) and collaborating with other boyfriend Harry Styles to recreate the famous “Dirty Dancing” lift at a private party (nobody puts Taylor in a corner).
Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. When Rice’s name was floated for nomination to succeed Hillary Clinton as the next secretary of state, haters called her “prickly,” “hard-headed,” “temperamentally unfit,” and “always right on the edge of a screech.” The personality police eventually moved Rice to withdraw her name from the running. Ruth Marcus wrote, “The controversy over Rice stems in part from the fact that she does not fit comfortably into this model of collegial, nurturing, division-healing woman.” But the idea that Susan Rice could have netted the job had she shown the softer side of the secretary is yet another double standard keeping lady jerks down. Previous Madame Secretaries Hillary and Condi weren’t soft and fuzzy, either.