Banishing The Word “Bossy” From Our Vocabularies

For our first guest post, The Current Conscience introduces lawyer Kathleen J. Wu, who looks at how the word “bossy” carries a negative and gendered connotation. Wu explores how successful women are often disliked, not only by male colleagues, but also other women–that a woman’s success has problematic social consequences.

One of the reasons women seem to hit a wall in their careers goes back to a word they’ve heard consistently since elementary school: bossy.

There’s something visceral about that word. It’s everything a little girl shouldn’t be, and her friends, parents and teachers all scolded her when they perceived she was being “bossy.” Flash forward ten years, and either the bossy girl is student council president, head of the lacrosse team and yearbook editor, or she took the criticisms to heart and crawled back into her shell.

While I applaud the girl who ignored the calls not to be bossy, she may find that the success that will most likely come her way exacts a high cost: She probably won’t be very well-liked. Of course, there’s no law against disliking someone, but when the source of that dislike is a woman’s success, it’s the worst kind of sexism — the kind most people aren’t even aware of and are unlikely to outgrow.

The worst part? It’s not just men who dislike successful women. Other women dislike them, too.
We see examples of this all the time, most recently in an October study published in the ABA Journal. The study, by Chicago-Kent College of Law professor Felice Batlan, surveyed 142 legal secretaries at larger law firms in 2009, and not one expressed a preference for working with a female partner. (In fairness, 47 percent of the legal secretaries had no opinion, but not a single one said they preferred working for a female partner, versus a male partner, male associate or female associate.)

That finding concurs with at least two others I’ve seen: 2004′s “Penalties for Success: Reactions to Women Who Succeed at Male Gender-Typed Tasks” and 2005′s “Formal and Informal Discrimination Against Women at Work: The Role of Gender Stereotypes.”

To summarize the two studies, when women who work in professions traditionally held by men (such as the legal profession) are successful, they are less liked than similarly successful men. Furthermore, those successful women are evaluated more harshly and get fewer “organizational rewards” (bonuses, promotions, raises, etc.) than their male counterparts.

What causes this bias? One of the most plausible explanations is that society still tells us that there are women’s roles and men’s roles, and jobs that cater to the supposedly innate characteristics of each gender. Women are nurses, teachers and mommies — all jobs that require some empathy, nurturing and other, “softer” characteristics. Men are cops, high-powered executives and football players — jobs that require more aggression than compassion.

According to Brian Welle and Madeline E. Heilman, the authors of “Formal and Informal Discrimination at Work,” when women succeed at male gender-typed jobs, they are ,by design, violating society’s rules. When that happens, society disapproves. Such women are “described as being downright interpersonally hostile: abrasive, pushy, manipulative, and generally unlikeable. In contrast, successful men and women who did not violate prescriptive stereotypes were rated as significantly more interpersonally pleasant.”

These stereotypes are every bit as harmful as the more blatant discrimination women used to face. But since they’re subtle and informal, they’re harder to combat.

The world would be a better place if we could all trade in these stereotypes and let men and women define success by their own terms. As Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg said, “I want my son to have a choice to contribute fully in the workforce or at home. And I want my daughter to have the choice to not just succeed, but to be liked for her accomplishments.”

So, what’s a woman lawyer, bond trader, fire fighter, or any other woman in a traditionally male profession, to do? One idea is to be patient and wait until society gets past its biases. Of course, if we approached every social injustice that way, women still wouldn’t have the vote, let alone occupy a growing number of leadership positions in the business and political world.

A better approach would be to do as Gandhi recommended: Be the change we wish to see in the world. Men and women alike need to become aware of our own biases and be sure we’re not basing our negative opinions of our colleagues on outdated and counterproductive stereotypes. Yes, of course, there are some horrible bosses out there, of both sexes. And truly abominable behavior should be acknowledged and receive appropriate consequences. But simply demanding great work and not being all that interested in someone else’s 3-year-old’s birthday party don’t equal abominable behavior. That’s just called being the boss and trying to live up to the responsibilities of that title.

We also need to get over the need to be liked. That doesn’t mean we can be jerks. It just means it’s not the worst thing in the world if our co-workers or subordinates find us arrogant, demanding or bossy. We can’t be liked by everybody, no matter how nice we are, so we might as well ignore those who would prefer their female leaders to be demure, submissive and sweet. Besides, I can’t think of any leaders — male or female — who fit that description.

One final step: It’s the precursor to all the other weighted words applied to women leaders, like “ambitious,” “shrill,” and other PG- and R-rated words. Banish the word “bossy” from our vocabularies. Stop telling the young women in our lives not to be bossy, and if we hear someone telling a girl she’s too bossy, simply pull her aside and tell her, “Don’t worry, you’re just being a leader.”

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Kathleen J. Wu is a partner in Andrews Kurth in Dallas. Her practice areas include real estate, finance and business transactions.

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8 Responses to “Banishing The Word “Bossy” From Our Vocabularies”

  1. Avatar of Dundoe
    Dundoe December 8, 2011 at 5:44 pm #

    Here’s what all successful people know about becoming successful: Be singleminded in purpose. Men and women, who are pursuing a goal despite heavy oppression, spend NO time, ZERO, thinking about the way things SHOULD be. They never say, ‘The world would be a better place if…, A better approach would be…, We also need to get over… .’ Why? Because in the midst of climbing Mount Everest it is counter-productive to worry about how difficult the pinnacle is to achieve or how the climb could be better, easier, fairer etc. . Successful people don’t need encouraging; they don’t need to be pulled aside. And if being called bossy, shrill, ambitious or any other PG or R rated words dissuades you from your goal, that’s the only time you should be discouraged.

  2. Avatar of yourspiritualtruth
    yourspiritualtruth November 21, 2011 at 3:46 pm #

    Kathleen, you said, ” It’s not just men who dislike successful women. Other women dislike them, too.” AMEN! This has been the worst kind of gender bias I have experienced as a woman in both the corporate and ministerial world. As a supervisor of a department who was not only successful, but efficient, I get targeted by my “employees” because I didn’t need to put in a 60 hour week to get my 40 hours of work done. I got it done in 40. Then in ministerial work, as a woman who dared to leave the fold of the “institution” and branch out into something less constricting and more freeing, I am called “blasphemous,” “a heretic” or worse, “just another woman who is angry at the church.” Thank you for reminding us of how truly hard we are on each other. Why can we not be proud of each other’s success, recognize our own unique giftedness and honor each other for that? Strangely, men sometimes seem to get this part better than women.

    Lauri Lumby
    Authentic Freedom Ministries
    Oshkosh, WI

  3. Avatar of aeswen
    aeswen November 21, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    Thanks so much for sharing. It is both difficult and fascinating to think about the subtle types of sexism in our society today. The Current Conscience is helping me to rethink my worldview and how to overcome sexism and other types of discrimination in our culture.

  4. Avatar of smibbo
    smibbo November 21, 2011 at 1:36 pm #

    I don’t know… I’ve heard the admonishment not to be bossy directed toward young boys just as often as girls. Perhaps the biggest distinction is that during adolescence the word “bossy” is replaced with “asshole” for boys whereas “bossy” remains in place.
    Also, I have never heard someone describe their boss as “bossy” I do think were someone do such there’d be at least one person laughing.

    When it comes to small children the chastisement against being “bossy” comes from misplaced bossiness; pre-adolescents often decide they are the ones to direct others even when the others are people in recognizable authority.

    Now I will easily acknowledge that the social dynamic of females means that during single-sex interactions, a girl who pushes her view onto or makes decisions for the rest of the group will be condemned as “bossy” or “pushy” because in female groups equal-time is considered to be the ideal goal and consensus the ideal method. This is precisely why all-female groups exist on the playground;excluding males ensures the goal of cooperative group play. Girl “leaders” may be tolerated to some extent but no, they will not be liked any more than a boy who “crashes” the female group and starts giving out orders. The dynamics of male groups relies on establishment of an authoritarian ladder which all males involved agree upon. After that, consensus ends. Yet still the term “bossy” may be tossed about when the pecking order has been disrupted by someone who assumes more leadership than the group deems acceptable.

    I find it odd that this false double-standard is still trotted out on occasion. yes, sexism against successful women is still existant and yes many people dislike the implications of a female who is not living the stereotype of nurturer and placater but in the workplace, this is not borne out and neither on the playground.

  5. Avatar of vikkikaran
    vikkikaran November 21, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Love it! I often say that what is called bossy in third grade is what translates to leadership skills in adulthood.

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