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Women Who Intimidate

  • Carolyn McCulley Author & Contributing Writer
  • Updated Aug 22, 2007
Women Who Intimidate

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.

In this chapter, the authors are not implying that women with such gifts are called to lead a family or a church. They recognize the appropriate spheres in which women are called by Scripture to use their gifts. What they want us to understand is the impact of the arrogance and lack of appreciation for others that often characterizes women with strong personalities. In plain old Christian terms, we need humility. One practical way to mortify pride is to cultivate gratitude for the contributions and gifts of others. We also need to view ourselves from another perspective and realize that relationships are more important to God than our “accomplishments.” I put that in quotes because our puny accomplishments are laughable because we do nothing on our own, anyway. God enables everything we do, including our next breath.

Instead of rushing through life, task-oriented female leaders are called to grow in love and develop understanding. One way we can do this is to redeem the time by becoming an observer of people and the world. Beginning with ourselves, we can learn to become a student of others. Instead of being satisfied with accomplishing our substantive goals while being blind to how we are relating with people, we are called to understand and to serve others in love.

To understand others and ourselves better, we can quietly ask ourselves: What nonverbal cues am I observing? Are they comfortable, or am I talking too fast? How often am I interrupting? Has everyone in the room had an opportunity to talk? Am I communicating genuine interest and care? …

Women with powerful personalities tend to experience great tension because we know we are to be humble but deep in our hearts a war rages. Even though we would probably not admit it to many people, deep down we believe that compared to others, we often know more, understand more, and have the right way to do things. Such pride leads to conflicts and broken relationships. In the words of Susan Hunt, “Pride always divides, but the cross unites.” God’s grace develops humility in us and enables us to show the world Jesus.

Finally, the authors address the tension women with strong personalities can create for those in leadership.

Women with strong personalities can be affirming to their leaders, causing them to delight in the joys of having someone who believes in them and supports them with great passion. When those times arise that women with strong personalities are called upon to submit to decisions with which they don’t agree, their same powerful personalities can cause terror in others. Leaders can fear angering strong women because they do not want to endure our wrath and disdain.

And there you have it – that last sentence sums up the intimidation factor. No one wants to endure wrath and disdain from a proud, judgmental woman. So please don’t let worldly thinking confuse competence with arrogance. We see many competent women with strong faith in Scripture. Competence is not the problem, sin is.

But there is hope for change! God’s grace can enable us all to tame the sinful aspects of a “strong personality” so that we use that same strength with compassion and love, not to dominate but to build up and serve others.

Carolyn McCulley is an author, speaker, and blogger, as well as the media specialist for Sovereign Grace Ministries. She acknowledges the kindness of her friend, Tara Klena Barthel, co-author of "Peacemaking Women," for allowing her to lean so heavily on this book for her column.