Am I intimidating? Sarah Payne guest blogs at St.Emlyn’s

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I had some surprising (and if I’m telling the truth, a bit upsetting) feedback recently. During their end of attachment debrief one of our F2s said that they found me ‘intimidating’. I’ve had isolated comments like this before on the odd MSF, and haven’t usually taken much notice of them.

But I’m in more of a contemplative mood these days. As an educationalist geek I’ve been doing a lot of reading on critical reflection and feedback so I decided to focus on this more. This blog post followed naturally on from that. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts.

My self image is that I’m really quite a nice person. I’ve met a few people in medicine who pride themselves on a ‘take no nonsense’ attitude and I’ve never been a fan of this approach. I can clearly remember (all too cringingly) my first nervous tentative days in EM, and find it easy to empathise with colleagues who feel out of their depth. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like. I see it as part of my role as the registrar to support my colleagues. I’ve provided tissues and a shoulder to cry on for junior doctors who’ve had the sharp end of someone else’s tongue. I’ve made cups of tea for someone who’s just had enough at the end of a run of nights. I’ve stood up for my junior colleagues with stroppy specialty teams. My reflex answer to the question ‘Can I just ask you about…’ is ‘Of course, that’s what I’m here for’ because I’ve been on the other side (and I still ask questions). I am fastidious about making sure people get their breaks, because I remember how awful it was feeling hungry and thirsty and not wanting to ask for a break because we were really busy. I’m not perfect but I do my best because I genuinely want people to enjoy their time in the ED. I love my job and I hope that over the course of my career I’ll be able to inspire other people to join us in the best specialty in medicine.

 Yet despite my best efforts, I’d made someone feel intimidated. It upset me.

I sat and I thought about it. I thought about all the registrars and consultants I’d worked for over the years in an attempt to find some kind of pattern. How had I felt about them? How many of them had I found intimidating/scary?

What I realised surprised me. 

Male consultants or registrars? 1 or 2 in the 12 years since I qualified (and to be perfectly honest, these chaps had some major interpersonal skills issues). The women? I feel embarrassed to admit that it was a very long list. Over my career there are many senior female doctors that I have found intimidating. They’re also usually the ones that I most admire; they’re damn good at their job – knowledgeable, competent, efficient and ambitious. If I was sick, I’d want them looking after me. Yet they intimidate me. Why?

We judge people instinctively, and we tend to give warmth primacy in the decision making. We expect women to exhibit ‘warm’ behaviours such as nurturing and caring. Ironically, this means that women suffer most when being judged on this attribute. A female will be judged against a different standard to a man, because as a society we expect women to behave differently.  So an assertive woman is viewed as not being warm and we see this in a negative light. An assertive man? We accept this as normal masculine behaviour. (Cuddy et al, 2011)

To add insult to injury, women face a double bind. When they are demonstrably competent, they are seen as less warm. In fact, the more competent they are, the less warm they are perceived to be (Kervyn et al, 2009).

As a female trainee, it does feel a bit like I can’t win. In EM there are times when you have to be assertive. Leading a team in a critical situation requires someone who can be appropriately assertive, confident and make decisions. Yet by doing this well, people will view you negatively:

Highly competent women and successful female managers are viewed as capable of leadership, but also as hostile, selfish, devious and lacking social skills – by both male and female perceivers (Heilman et al, 1995, Heilman  Wallen, Fuchs, & Tamkins, 2004; Rudman, 1998; Rudman & Glick, 1999; Rudman & Glick, 2001, in Cuddy et al, 2011)

‘Although women must present themselves as self confident, assertive and professional to be considered for leadership roles, when they do so they risk social and economic reprisals’ (Rudman and Phelan, 2008, p64)

Meryl Streep played a stereotypical view of female leadership in The Devil Wears Prada.
Meryl Streep played a stereotypical view of female leadership in The Devil Wears Prada.

So what to do? To succeed, women must be warm and friendly, demonstrating traditional feminine traits such as caring and nurturing. Yet at the same time, to be successful in my job, I need to be competent, confident and assertive. No easy task.

I feel a little confused by all of this, but also a little reassured. I’d be more worried if I was perceived as warm but not competent, and as a petite female flexible trainee with several children it can be difficult to be taken seriously. I’ve experienced my fair share of comments along the lines of ‘You’re pregnant again? Don’t you have a TV?, derogatory remarks about being a ‘part timer’ and even, when wanting to take OOPE to pursue a special interest  ‘Why are you making your life so difficult?’

In reaction to this, maybe I’ve tried too hard to project confidence and competence and gone too far the other way. Maybe I need to let my guard down more, be warmer, more authentic, less defensive.

So it’s all about finding an elusive balance. Getting to know someone well makes it easier to see them as warm. This is tougher for flexible trainees (you’re there less, so it takes everyone longer to get to know you). We all seem to spend less time socialising after work too – our home lives have taken on greater importance. This is certainly not wrong, but it makes getting to know people that bit harder.

I’ve learned that I am just as guilty of making these judgements as others. If I as a feminist, can judge other women in this way (and being intimidated is my subconscious making a judgement) then I’m not surprised that others do the same to me. So while I try my hardest to project a warm and competent manner I’ll also be trying not to do it to other people. What do you think?



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Cuddy, A.J., Glick, P., Beninger, A.  (2011): The Dynamics of Warmth and Competence Judgments, and their Outcomes in Organizations Research in Organizational Behavior: 31 73–98.

Kervyn, N., Yzerbyt, V. Y., Judd, C. M., & Nunes, A. (2009). A question of compensation: The social life of the fundamental dimensions of social perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: 96, 828-842.

Rudman, L. A., & Phelan, J. E. (2008). Backlash effects for disconfirming gender stereotypes in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior: 28, 61-79.

Cite this article as: Simon Carley, "Am I intimidating? Sarah Payne guest blogs at St.Emlyn’s," in St.Emlyn's, May 31, 2014,

9 thoughts on “Am I intimidating? Sarah Payne guest blogs at St.Emlyn’s”

  1. Janos P Baombe

    Good read!
    I was happy to see the reference to “The Devil Wears Prada”. Expectations from society are indeed strange sometimes. A Miranda Pristley would sometimes be seen as being a successful champion in the business world, the male counterpart less likely. It is the same in medicine.
    For me, what is even more important is to understand and accept diversity in our leadership, managerial and medical styles.
    ” We are all different” and I personally like that!
    The Myers-Briggs personality test I undertook last year as part of a leadership course was a discovery and revelation for self and colleagues I work with. If you are unfamiliar with, worth googling but there are other theories out there!
    I have never been a supporter of unified and standardised approach to deal with leadership, educational issues: we are all different and it is good that way!
    The important bit is to take criticism and critique on board, to become an even better person (for self and not necessarily our peers only!).
    Self-reflection leads to illumination: sounds like Dante slightly…

    1. Hi Janos. I agree that diversity is essential and I think you would agree that Virchester has a diverse workforce.

      To go off topic a bit (the following is not really what Sarah is talking about)

      The issue about personalities is an interesting one. I did a chapter in this book on the relationship between personality and behaviour and I think it’s important to delineate between them. Behaviour is what we do and in some settings, particularly time critical ones we might argue that we behaviour is more important than personality. More importantly we must differentiate between personality and behaviour, management styles, leadership etc. They are different things although related.

      To paraphrase the book…., ‘you can have any personality you like, but whilst working with us we expect your behaviour to be this’



  2. Great blog – you nailed the quandary well. Suggest you look up Amanda Sinclairs work esp doing leadership differently


  3. Very insightful Sarah. We try to achieve the impossible. I think it’s frustrating that we have to be in some ways ‘better’ at our job to achieve the same as our male counterparts. I totally agree that good female role models in medicine are in shorter supply than the well adjusted good male doctor blokes that are commonly found. We need to change this but also play to our strengths. Medicine is now a profession flooded with women who will mostly also want to become mothers at some point. Part time shift work also works best for patients as they expect a 24/7 service of expertise rather than tired novices. I think we are just at the sharp end. Women who care enough to reflect on how other people see us, yet have to work in the present model which challenges us and stops us from thriving. You are a wonderful doctor, mother, wife and friend who doesn’t intimidate me in the slightest!! Xxxx

  4. an informed and wise opinion; intimidation though is about the other person, not (necessarily) you. keep on being awesome, it may be that that is intimidating

  5. Hi,

    A blog we can all relate to in some way I think…….. I feel that for a start, the very fact you have written an article about this topic shows a very alive and active sense of self awareness and clearly demonstrates that you care about how you make other people feel. These attributes alone, without even knowing you, lead me to believe that you are a good person.

    If that was not enough, you also do a very special job, one in which you make a difference, on a daily basis, to peoples lives. Some days you saves lives too. This is not an average job .

    There are plenty of people out there who could not put their name to either one of these qualities or actions, never mind both.

    Of course there is always room for self improvement within ourselves , its just funny how it so often seems that already good, balanced people are striving to be even better, and those who perhaps lack some or all of these qualities, and do very little if anything for the benefit of others, never seek improvement.



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