The 'Bossy' Lady Struggle

The 'Bossy' Lady Struggle | Jennifer Spoelma

Happy Wednesday! I hope this edition of Feminine Foresight shines rays of encouragement, reflection and expectation into your mid-week. I've got some gooooooood things to share with you today! So let's get into it.

Imagine that we're all in a room together. (Wouldn't that be great?) And I said the following: "Ladies, raise your hand if you've ever been called 'bossy' before?"

Head's up: Every time I write the word 'bossy' here I'm going to place it in those quote marks. This is to draw attention to how loaded the word is. See those quotes as a queue to read the word in the condescending tone I'm sure you're familiar with. And, if you feel so inclined to replace 'bossy' with the other b-word, be my guest. I think we all know that 'bossy' usually just functions as a cleaner placeholder anyway. 😑

What do you think would happen?

Here's what I think would happen. I think we'd see some shoulders moving, fidgeting and eyes glancing around. Maybe a few brave ladies would raise their hand, but I doubt it would be lifted with pride.

Cute Kitten

Here's a visual: This kitten captures the uncertainty I imagine women feel responding 'yes' to being called 'bossy'. Wide-eyed and concerned about the ramifications of their admission.

She's cute, yes, but she's also so timid. And I don't want any of you feeling that way. I'm not suggesting we set out to be 'bossy'. Rather, let's investigate where this negativity comes from and what we can do to make things better for ourselves and our sisters.

A friend, and Feminine Foresight reader, sent me the following question. It perfectly sums up the pressure/confusion I've felt around being labeled 'bossy'. I'm sure you have experienced similar feelings too, so we're going to dig into this today. She said:

"I think I'm probably one of many "bossy" girls who turned into "reluctant to sound bossy because I want everyone to like me" women. How can we get over the fear that people will judge/criticize us if we aim for leadership rolls?"

Maybe you've never been called 'bossy' before?

If you're like me, that may be true because you've worked reallllly hard to make sure that know one ever said those words about you.

We are afraid to be labeled as 'bossy' because it alienates us and seemingly strips us of our femininity.

It's not just a word-choice issue. The synonyms of bossy aren't any better (overbearing, pushy, high-handed, authoritarian). Rather, it's a perception issue.

Often times, women who exercise their ambition, are advocates or who are in leadership roles, are labeled 'bossy' when they make difficult decisions or draw hard lines. Instead of being admired or affirmed for taking action, we tend to be met with skepticism or disapproval.

This happens because gender bias is so engrained in our culture. When it comes to leadership, the overwhelming tendency is to associate* leadership behaviors with masculinity and femininity (Hogue).

*Keyword: Associate. These are not actually male or female traits. Our cultural perception has just shaped us to view them that way.

Masculine Associations
  • Assertiveness
  • Initiate structure
  • Self-confidence
  • Maintain control
Feminine Associations
  • Interpersonal acceptance
  • Empathy
  • Others-focused
  • Humility and Modesty

All of the traits listed above are important for effective leadership. However, because the majority of leadership roles have been held by men, it's influenced culture's concept of what a leader looks like. Therefore placing higher value on the assertive qualities men often display more naturally as opposed to the communal qualities women display more naturally.

This creates two major problems:

  1. Women who exercise leadership traits associated with masculinity are seen as not being feminine enough.
  2. Our perception of leadership is informed by our familiarity with male leaders, which makes it easy to value masculine qualities over feminine for leadership positions.

There is research that connects these patterns and associations to how each gender is socialized linguistically. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C, has studied the language dynamics of men and women for years.

She says, "girls tend to learn conversational rituals that focus on the rapport dimension of relationships whereas boys tend to learn rituals that focus on the status dimension (Tannen)."

"A group of girls will ostracize a girl who calls attention to her own superiority and criticize her by saying, 'She thinks she’s something'; and a girl who tells others what to do is called 'bossy.'" - Deborah Tannen

This means that women are more likely to speak in ways that build relationships and emphasize equality, for example, using the term "we" instead of "I" when describing work that you have accomplished. Women try to save face for others, often at the cost of their own status.

Men, on the other hand, have been socialized to use language to assert their status in a group. For example, a man would be more likely to say "I" when describing the work his team has accomplished.

These differences don't make one other the other better or worse. But they are insightful when we try to diagnose how to speak up without being labeled as 'bossy'.

What do we do next?

  1. Don't use the term 'bossy'. If someone is truly difficult to work with, hang out with or follow because of their attitude or approach, try giving them more constructive feedback. Let them know how their actions are affecting you so that you can find a resolution without hurting one another.
  2. Investigate more leadership styles. You may be surprised how many styles and theories there are about leadership. If you don't feel you fit the standard mold of leadership you're familiar with, that doesn't mean you aren't a leader. Find a way of leading and influencing that leverages your natural skills and feels authentic to you.
  3. Encourage one another. Whether female or male, experienced or inexperienced, we are all insecure about our ability to lead well. Affirm the people in your life who are doing their part to make the world a better place through their leadership.

Thanks for being part of the journey with me.

Warmly, Jennifer Spoelma

Works Cited: Hogue, Mary. 2016. Gender bias in communal leadership: examining servant leadership. Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 31 Issue 4 pp. 837 - 849.
Tannen, Deborah. "The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why." Harvard Business Review. N.p., 03 Feb. 2016. Web. 19 Apr. 2017.