There is a clear gender gap when it comes to leadership today. Women earn 58% of US bachelor’s degrees, yet only make up 19% of US congress, 10% of heads of state and just 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. While there are many reasons why women are under-represented in leadership, research shows that at least one reason is that from an early age, women are socially trained to not think of themselves as leaders.
Boys are expected to show conviction and demonstrate confidence, and when they do so, are praised and called ‘assertive’. Meanwhile, young girls are expected to be nurturing and submissive. Young girls who deviate from this stereotype and who demonstrate leadership skills are labeled ‘bossy’, a word that is discouraging and disparaging. In fact, one study found that by the 7th grade, girls are half as likely to take on leadership roles because they are afraid of being called the dreaded b-word.
The Ban Bossy Campaign, by Sheryl Sandberg, has brought much attention to this gender difference and leadership bias among young children. The campaign states that we should ban the word bossy, as a way to remove this negative stereotype and thus encourage young girls to lead.
The campaign focuses on this message: Bossy is a negative label used only toward girls who demonstrate assertiveness. This in turn decreases the odds of them growing up to become women leaders.
The Ban Bossy Campaign has garnered much media attention, in part due to the wide range of celebrities backing the campaign, including luminaries such as Michelle Obama, Jennifer Gardner and Beyoncé (photo reprinted courtesy of Ban Bossy and LeanIn.org).
How is ‘Bossy’ affecting women in the workplace?
But what happens beyond this playground name-calling? Can the word bossy continue to harm women as they move into leadership roles in the workplace? The Center for Creative Leadership recently conducted a study to explore just that. It sought to define the word bossy, develop measures and indicators of bossiness, and explore how being bossy in the workplace may impact careers of both women and men.
We found that women are twice as likely as men to be called bossy in the workplace. However, men were just as likely to exhibit bossy behavior in the workplace.
We also found that, when it comes to the workplace, being bossy is not at all about being assertive which the Ban Bossy campaign touts. Our research uncovered that workers were labeled bossy when they ignored others’ perspectives, valued power and authority, were rude and pushy, and controlled, dictated and micro-managed.
Unsurprisingly, we found that exhibiting these bossy indicators was related to being less likeable, less successful and less popular. Moreover, being bossy was related to reduced promotability, for both men and women leaders.
Notably, however, bossy women had poorer outcomes. Women who fulfil the bossy criteria suffered more from a social standpoint and were less promotable than their bossy men counterparts.
What if we banned bossy in the workplace?
The Ban Bossy campaign calls for a ceasefire of bossy name-calling on the playground, in order to encourage girls to lead. However, the bossy phenomenon seems to be a bit more complicated when it comes to the workplace. On the one hand, it seems women continue to be disproportionately labeled with the b-word, even in in the workplace. So, taking it out of our vocabulary might be one way to stop some of the implicit discrimination against women leaders at work.
On the other hand, we found that bossiness is a negative leadership trait for both men and women, so conflating bossy with ‘assertiveness’ or ‘leadership’ runs the risk of promoting negative stereotypes about leaders and how they should behave.
Contrary to what Ban Bossy and others might say, our research shows that it’s not advantageous to be bossy in the workplace, regardless of your gender – even if you are the boss.
What do you think? Will banning bossy solve the gender gap in workplace leadership?