The young woman in the back of the room raised her hand during a Q&A session at the end of the talk I had just given. With a tinge of bitterness, she asked, “When men say that a woman is intimidating, what are they really saying? Is that just a code word for when is a woman is ugly? Or too successful? Or what?”

The sea of heads swiveled from back to front to look at me. There was a lot of emotional freight in that question and I paused momentarily to consider my answer (the gist of which I’m presenting here).

“Well, ‘intimidating’ can mean several things,” I said. “A woman’s physical attractiveness, her character, her demeanor, her attainment – all of that can be daunting to a man who considers such an appealing woman out of his league. But that doesn’t mean he won’t go for it and see if she’ll accept his attention.

“But in my limited experience, when men describe women as intimidating, they are most often referring to a woman whose spirit is hard and unyielding. They are intimidated by her contentious attitude, by her ‘chew ‘em up and spit ‘em out’ attitude. Such a woman makes them wary.”

Not everyone understands this phrase in the same way. Feminists have generally interpreted this to mean that a successful woman is intimidating to men. So when they hear that description, they react with scorn toward men who can’t handle a competent woman. That’s what I used to believe, too, having been thoroughly indoctrinated in my feminist, unbelieving past. Even for several years as a Christian, I maintained a similar view. But then I had a few key conversations and the light started to dawn.

With that feedback and a look at Scripture (certainly the Proverbs 31 woman is ultra-competent and she is being celebrated, not dismissed!), I realized intimidation has nothing to do with successful performance but everything to do with attitude. A woman is either peaceful and gentle, which are fruits of a heart that is humble and trusts God, or she is turbulent with the pushy arrogance and impatience of a woman who is self-centered. Men are intimidated when they think they will encounter a brick wall in trying to lead or serve a woman like this. It has more to do with an unyielding and judging spirit than competence. That’s why I nodded and cringed with recognition as I read the chapter on women with strong personalities from "Peacemaking Women," by Tara Klena Barthel and Judy Dabler.

Whether at home or in the workplace, women with leadership gifts and strong personalities will be prone to conflict. … By leadership gifts we mean the ability to encourage and motivate people to follow. By strong personality we mean that combination of vivaciousness and infectious enthusiasm that often accompanies bright minds and verbal prowess. ... Sometimes a woman with a strong personality does not understand how she comes across to the people around her. We both cringe when we consider how we related with people when we were in our twenties. Often we were decisive – and intimidating. We were determined – and disrespectful. Instead of understanding that some people thrive in more contemplative environments, we communicated with people in ways that implied we thought they were slow or weak. We were blind on how much our drivenness communicated that we believed others lacked passion and importance simply because they did not strive to accomplish as many goals or objectives as we did. Ironically, that same drivenness came from a desire to succeed and to bless the people around us. But our attitudes and our behaviors put people off and caused conflict.