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February 13, 2019

Intimidating or intimidated?

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I am often told I am intimidating. This is something that I take personally and would go as far as to say insulted by. In this blog I will look at the differences between the two terms and their repercussions on confidence and career progression.

Difference in terminology

Intimidating is used to describe someone or something that is frightening and causes someone to loose confidence. Synonyms include: frightening, alarming, terrifying and menacing.

Intimidated is used to describe someone who feels frightened and lacks confidence because of a person or situation. Synonyms include: frightened, afraid, alarmed and scared.

Intimidate is the act of deliberately making someone frightened enough to force them to do something. Synonyms include: pressure, threaten or bullying.

Reasons why men may feel intimidated?

You can see why I feel insulted when called intimidating, it is simply not true. I can confidently say that I do not frighten others and certainly do not deliberately make them feel this way to force them to do something.

Let’s take a minute to try and understand why men may find women intimidating. This can be both in the workplace and in personal relationships. In a personal relationship, someone can be described as intimidating when a person is attracted to another’s appearance, this is more about the person being intimidated by their looks rather than finding someone frightening,

A woman in a higher position then a man may be seen as more successful and thus intimidating. The question is whether the female is intimidating or whether the man feels uncomfortable being led by a woman.

Therefore, is it men’s insecurities that cause them to be intimidated by women?

In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology’s study ‘Gender Differences in Implicit Self-Esteem Following a Romantic Partner’s Success or Failure’, research shows that men are naturally conditioned to feel undermined and a lower self-esteem as it triggers fears that she will ultimately leave him. Even in a non-competitive environment, men automatically interpret a women success as their own failure. This research demonstrates why men may feel insecure and intimidated by senior women.

Is it just men?

Have you ever been called intimidating by women? Why is it just men who find and call women intimidating?

When women are asked who they are intimidated by, they often substitute intimidating for inspiring. Women are inspiring other women. If this same question is asked to men, it usually produces a negative response.

“In 2017, being intimidating as a woman is often thought of as a negative. It’s associated with being aggressive (as opposed to assertive), bossy (as opposed to direct) and intense (as opposed to firm).” – Sara Baker, SVP, Public Relations

Sheryl Sandberg shares Sara Baker’s view and gives the example of having a word for “bossy” in every language for little girls but this is not a word used for little boys, who are expected to behave that way naturally.

Sara Baker and Sheryl Sandberg hit the nail on the head with our conditioned way of viewing leadership qualities in a woman. As if the same was true for a man (assertive, direct and firm), he would be viewed as having attractive leadership qualities.

Categorizing women as intimidating creates a negative stereotype of female leaders. If more women held senior positions this would make them more approachable and thus more women would consider a senior role. This has a snow ball effect on the balance of gender in senior positions, making the role more accessible. This snow ball effect has been demonstrated between fiscal years 2014-2017 with women having a 40% increase in executive level positions, according to 2019 GEI data.

If you have not read Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’, she outlines the story of Heidi & Howard- both successful VC’s but both viewed very differently…

“There’s a really good study that shows this really well. There’s a famous Harvard Business School study on a woman named Heidi Roizen. And she’s an operator in a company in Silicon Valley, and she uses her contacts to become a very successful venture capitalist. In 2002 — not so long ago — a professor who was then at Columbia University took that case and made it [Howard] Roizen. And he gave the case out, both of them, to two groups of students. He changed exactly one word: “Heidi” to “Howard.” But that one word made a really big difference. He then surveyed the students, and the good news was the students, both men and women, thought Heidi and Howard were equally competent, and that’s good. The bad news was that everyone liked Howard. He’s a great guy. You want to work for him. You want to spend the day fishing with him. But Heidi? Not so sure. She’s a little out for herself. She’s a little political. You’re not sure you’d want to work for her. This is the complication. We have to tell our daughters and our colleagues, we have to tell ourselves to believe we got the A, to reach for the promotion, to sit at the table, and we have to do it in a world where, for them, there are sacrifices they will make for that, even though for their brothers, there are not.”- Sheryl Sandberg

Repercussions this terminology has

Imposter Syndrome is a hot term right now in HR and is not something I wanted to include in this blog. However, it’s hard not to include it when a direct consequence of being perceived as having undesired traits in a leadership position is feeling like a fraud. Therefore, it is not surprising to hear that women suffer from imposter syndrome more then men. (This is also known as feeling like a fraud or fear of failure.)

Dr Peggy McIntosh has a fantastic way of describing what this feels like:

“One has pulled the wool over others’ eyes; that one is in the wrong place, and about to be found out; that there has been a colossal mistake in the selection and accreditation process which the rest of the world is about to discover.”

What has imposter syndrome got to do with Women in Senior Positions?

“The problem with these stories is that they show what the data shows: women systematically underestimate their own abilities. If you test men and women, and you ask them questions on totally objective criteria like GPAs, men get it wrong slightly high, and women get it wrong slightly low.” “Why does this matter? Boy, it matters a lot. Because no one gets to the corner office by sitting on the side, not at the table, and no one gets the promotion if they don’t think they deserve their success, or they don’t even understand their own success.”- Sheryl Sandberg


  • 74% of women aspire to reach executive leadership ranks.
  • 49% of women surveyed expressed the belief that it is more challenging for them to reach senior management positions than it is for men in their organisation.
  • This was even more prevalent in women who had already risen to middle management levels and above, with more than 60% feeling they would struggle more than their male counterparts in getting a promotion.
  • “Dear Strong Women: You aren’t intimidating. He is intimidated. There’s a difference.”- Charles J. Orlando

Moral to the story is to say “thank you” when described as intimidating. This indicates that you ooze confidence, are strong willed and have reached a high enough position to be deemed as successful.

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About the Author
WORK180 promotes organizational standards that raise the bar for women in the workplace. We only endorse employers that are committed to making real progress so that all women can expect better.

Looking for a new opportunity?

Our transparent job board only has vacancies from employers we endorse and lets you see what benefits, policies and perks come with the job.