Staffing Management

Women in Leadership: ‘Bossy’ Rants

By Lara Walsh

Oct. 31, 2014

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock.

Beyoncé Knowles, Condoleezza Rice and Sheryl Sandberg have something in common.

They’re all successful women — and they’ve all been called “bossy.”

By middle school, many young girls are less interested in leadership than boys because they fear that being assertive and speaking one’s mind is seen as unfeminine.

This pattern unfortunately continues well into adulthood. Numerous studies, including a survey by the U.K.-based Institute of Leadership & Management, found that the gap in confidence between genders plays a role in holding women back from leadership roles.

Leaders have tried to change this mentality. Earlier this year, the #banbossy campaign videos started by Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, in which Beyoncé states, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss” went viral.

But it might take more than a video campaign to remove the deep-rooted stigmas against women in leadership positions.

The Research

A study from Palo Alto Software, a Eugene, Oregon-based technology company, shows that the women who do grow up to be leaders and display characteristics like confidence and decisiveness are almost twice as likely to get called “bossy” as men.

In the study, both men and women acknowledged that the word “bossy” comes with a negative connotation — pushy, controlling or stubborn. Not what you’d want from a leader.

On the other hand, men who displayed similar characteristics were told they had leadership qualities, or at the very worst, were considered “rough around the edges.”

Sabrina Parsons, CEO of Palo Alto Software, says that the current workplace mentality needs to change in order to close the gender gap.

“When women are being called bossy twice as often as men, it means that as a society we do not accept women as leaders,” Parsons said.

The Ban Bossy campaign was created to encourage women to become leaders.



Brianna Huy, a senior media supervisor for public relations firm Edelman, said a put-down about women in leadership roles is the same regardless of whether the word “bossy” is actually used.

“The terms that I hear are basically saying the same thing as bossy. Sometimes you’re called too demanding or too direct and to the point or condescending,” Huy said. “When I’m direct, I maybe come across as not being as ‘nice’ as people would want me to be.”

The majority of women perceive a double-standard in leadership styles that are acceptable for women. The Palo Alto survey found that women feel they are treated differently in the workplace. Fifty-two percent of those surveyed said they felt discriminated against based on gender vs. just 9 percent of men.

Strong and direct women and men in leadership roles are received quite differently by their peers, especially when giving tough feedback.

“Here at Edelman where I work, it’s very common that a lot of the men, especially senior leaders, are direct and to-the-point,” Huy said. “They have their expectations and people want to meet them. People make sure they’re meeting them.”

On the other hand, women are expected to be “nicer” when giving feedback, which can lead to difficulties in outlining clear expectations and for female leaders to get what they need from their employees.

Julie Coffman, a partner at consulting firm Bain & Co. and chair of the company’s Global Women's Leadership Council, said that the company recognizes that women are some of their best talent, but factors like low confidence and dissatisfaction with unsupportive workplace environments ultimately keep women out of the board room.

“Women are over 50 percent of university graduates. They are in the upper 30-40 percent at the MBA schools we recruit at, so in order to continue our growth, we have to be the place where top-notch women want to come and start their careers, formulate their careers and stay in their careers,” Coffman said.

Once in the workplace, however, women may be less direct in delivering harsh feedback or hesitant to speak up in meetings, making their superiors pass them over for consideration for executive positions. Women who are direct and exhibit so-called “leadership qualities” are labeled as “bossy” or “demanding.”

Huy said that she is at an advantage working in the PR industry where two-thirds of the workforce is women as opposed to heavily male-dominated industry like science, technology, engineering and mathematics, commonly known as STEM fields. However, even in the public relation industry, only 1 out 3 leadership positions are held by women.

In a recent study from Bain, men and women entered the workforce with equal aspirations toward jobs and confidence that they could get those top jobs. A few years later, however, those numbers had dropped dramatically for women.

Being Direct

“It’s hard to walk the line,” Huy said. “As a business person, it’s important to build good relationships with people. You’re going to do that a lot better if you’re known for being someone good to work with, someone who’s nice. The problem is that women are held to a higher standard in that and are more easily painted in a negative light if they are put in tough situations and have to give tough feedback.”

Huy says that although her annual performance reviews are by far very positive, but there are always a few comments about people taking her direct style as condescending — feedback that she has to take with a grain of salt.

“I want to be very receptive and I don’t want to put anyone down, but at the same time, being a leader, not everyone’s going to like you. If somebody is not doing their job and you’re giving them feedback and providing them with the direction to do a better job, then I think that’s doing your job.”

Parsons encourages CEOs to support their female employees and constantly evaluate how they are promoting gender equality in their offices.

“It’s easy to let subtle biases slip under the radar,” Parsons said. “But monitoring promotion and employee evaluation processes can shine a light on what keeps women from moving up in your workplace.”

HR can also play a role by giving women a clear path to pursue leadership roles, perhaps around an unsupportive supervisor who is not giving them those opportunities.

“It’s not enough that you have diversity. You have to truly have an inclusive work environment and make sure that people are able to do their best,” Coffman said.

 “Bossy” might not be going anywhere soon but that doesn’t mean women can’t embrace it.

“If someone calls you bossy, it means that you are a strong leader, know how to make decisions and can take charge of a situation,” Parsons said. “We as women will be the ones to decide what bossy means going forward, so we need to take the time to build a new definition that signifies leadership, not harsh dominance.”

Lara Walsh is a Workforce editorial intern. Comment below or email Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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