• Published December 10, 2016
  • 5 Minute Read

Ban Bossy: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

Find out how leaders define “bossiness” in their own words, the implications of this term when it’s used in the workplace, and why we recommend you ban the term “bossy.”
Published December 10, 2016
Ban Bossy: What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

The word “bossy” and its link to leadership has been heavily discussed due to the “Ban Bossy” campaign founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and backed by world-renowned women leaders and luminaries.

The Ban Bossy campaign argues that from a young age, girls are trained to be quiet and submissive, and when they break these gender norms, they’re often criticized, disliked, and called “bossy” — a word that can discourage girls from growing up to be leaders.

Our researchers decided to take a look at the role of the word bossy in the workplace.

We conducted a research survey of 201 people (100 men and 101 women) and analyzed data from 20 years of behavioral data and promotability ratings, from our Benchmarks® 360 assessments. Results from our survey revealed:

  • Bossiness is a common issue in the workplace, as 25% of leaders surveyed said they’ve been called “bossy” at work, and 92% of them said they’ve worked with someone bossy.
  • The term “bossy” isn’t a synonym for assertiveness or other positive executive leadership skills.
  • Being “bossy” is seen as showing a lack of interpersonal skills, or the 6 indicators of bossiness, which include being directive and controlling, ignoring others’ perspectives, being rude and pushy, micromanaging, focusing on power, and being aggressive.
  • Women are referred to as “bossy” more often than men are.
  • Coworkers labeled as “bossy” are described as unpopular and unlikely to be successful in the future, and “bossy” women coworkers are seen as more unpopular and less successful compared to “bossy” men coworkers.
  • When we look at bossy behaviors, though — without the label of “bossy” — we found that men are just as likely as women to exhibit bossy behaviors in the workplace.
  • Acting “bossy” is related to being seen as less promotable, for both men and women. However, the relationship was stronger for women.

Altogether, our results show a consistent trend that being labeled as “bossy” in the workplace has negative consequences, and those consequences are particularly harsh for women. This is why we want to support the campaign to “Ban Bossy” stereotypes.

What It Means to “Be Bossy” — 6 Indicators of Bossiness

In our research, we asked leaders to define “bossy” in their own words. There was substantial agreement about what the word “bossy” means. Indicators of bossiness were people who:

  • control others and dictate orders;
  • ignore others’ perspectives;
  • are rude and pushy;
  • micromanage and prescribe specific actions (e.g., saying exactly how or when something should be done);
  • are focused on authority, power, and status; and
  • interact in aggressive ways.

The Gender Implications of Bossiness

We found that 33% of women and 17% of men reported that they’ve received feedback that they’re “bossy” at work. In other words, women were twice as likely to be branded as bossy in the workplace.

Yet, when leaders were asked to recall a time they worked with someone else whom they considered bossy, they were about equally likely to describe a man (48%) or a woman (52%). Men were more likely to describe bossy men coworkers, while women were more likely to describe bossy women coworkers.

Neither bossy women nor men are seen as superstars in their organizations, according to our survey participants. Bossiness damages men’s reputations as well as women’s reputations, yet we found that it hurts women more.

Contrary to what some might believe, we found women don’t act bossier than men; this is true whether we look at self-report ratings of bossiness or those reported by direct reports or bosses.

This supports the Ban Bossy campaign argument that women are often called bossy for doing the same behaviors as men. Even though women are twice as likely to be called bossy at work, they aren’t more likely to act that way.

This shows that exhibiting these behaviors is not a feminine trait. If anything, the data showed that men actually exhibited slightly more bossy behaviors compared to women.

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Is There a Penalty for Being Bossy?

Our findings show that being labeled “bossy” is a sign of bad leadership. Therefore, regardless of gender, leaders should make an effort to avoid being seen as bossy at work.

For both men and women, bossiness was related to being seen as less promotable. Men and women are both punished for bossiness in the workplace, but we found that the link between bossiness and being unpromotable was stronger for women.

This means that when women act bossy in the workplace, it has more serious consequences than when men do. This pattern is consistent across our 20 years of data.

In fact, looking at this trend across time, the gender gap is actually widening. If we look back 20 years, the relationship between bossiness and not being promotable was about the same for men and women. Today, the negative relationship is significantly stronger for bossiness in women than it is for men.

How Can We Work to Ban Bossy?

Based on our research, we came up with 3 practical recommendations to “ban bossy” in the workplace:

  • Be more thoughtful about tossing around the word “bossy.” Understand the term does carry more weight when applied to women, so use it with extreme caution. You may want to mentally ban “bossy” from your vocabulary, whether when talking about women in the workplace or about young girls.
  • When giving feedback or addressing interpersonal issues (with men or women), be descriptive and very specific about behaviors. Try to use other more descriptive words instead of “bossy” — such as the 6 indicators of bossiness noted above. Learn more about giving effective feedback.
  • Learn and develop strong interpersonal skills. All of us should make the effort to avoid negative interpersonal behaviors to become more effective, more promotable leaders. Learn more about boosting your interpersonal savvy.
  • Lastly, for tips on how to work with a “bossy” boss or coworkers, or if you’ve been told you’re bossy, get some advice in our white paper.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Companies that intentionally prioritize attracting and retaining talented women gain significant advantages. We can partner with you to support women’s leadership development or to create an organizational culture to “Ban Bossy” and other stereotypes, shifting mindsets, behaviors, and practices towards greater equity, diversity, and inclusion.

  • Published December 10, 2016
  • 5 Minute Read
  • Download as PDF

Based on Research by

Cathleen Clerkin
Cathleen Clerkin, PhD
Former Strategic Research Manager

Cathleen is the co-author of Resilience That Works: Eight Practices for Leadership and Life. A scientist, writer, speaker, and team leader, Cathleen has a PhD and MS in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a BS in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Cathleen is the co-author of Resilience That Works: Eight Practices for Leadership and Life. A scientist, writer, speaker, and team leader, Cathleen has a PhD and MS in Psychology from the University of Michigan, and a BS in Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

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