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Stop using the "B" word

Posted on August 6, 2020
Illustrated image of a business women with other business folks around her.

Okay folks, stop using the B-word – not that one, I’m referring to the word – BOSSY. The other morning as I was getting ready to read through my emails, I overheard a political pundit say with regard to one of the four potential Democratic VP candidates that she had a reputation for being ambitious. The implication was that ambition in a woman is viewed negatively. Another quickly jumped in and said, “By the nature of entering politics one is ambitious.” This brings up the continued conversation about the words we use to describe women leaders. Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook got so irritated with a word – BOSSY – that she started the movement, Ban Bossy.

According to the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in their recent White Paper entitled, "Bossy: What’s Gender Got to do With It?", they provided some context for the negativity surrounding the word, “bossy.”

  • The earliest citation of bossy in the Oxford English dictionary refers to a sentence from 1882 stating “There was a lady manager who was dreadfully bossy”
  • Use of the word bossy peaked in the 1930s (when women were often accused of “stealing” male jobs) and in the 1970s (when the women’s movement led to an increase of women in the workplace)
  • When Sandberg visited Howard University and asked women whether they were called bossy as children, one woman answered, “During my childhood? How about last week!”

In their study, the CCL looked at whether or not women are more bossy than their male counterparts and if this term has an impact on women’s reputations and thus their careers. The results? Well, they found that 50 percent more women were labeled bossy than men. However, it is interesting to note that when pressed to provide an example of the bossy behavior, 45 percent of the time, the participant was likely to describe a man’s bossy behavior. But, the truly interesting finding is that men were more likely to describe male colleagues as bossy and women were more likely to describe female coworkers as bossy.

In terms of the impact of being considered bossy – it does have an impact more on women than on men. In fact, 32 percent of bossy women were seen as unpopular while only 17 percent of bossy men were viewed as unpopular. And bossy women coworkers were “rated as less likely to have successful careers in the future compared to bossy men.”

The key finding, however, is that women do not act more bossy than men. In fact, “the data showed that men actually exhibited slightly more bossy behaviors compared to women.” The biggest difference is while there were consequences for both genders being bossy, the ramifications were more severe for the women. “Bossy” women were seen as less promotable by a wide margin.

Sheryl Sandberg’s, Ban Bossy campaign points out that it is time we stop using the term bossy to describe women, especially in leadership roles. But the undermining begins with girls and when we call girls “bossy,” we are already undercutting their confidence. One of the beliefs of this movement is that the confidence gap starts early, “Between elementary and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys’.”

So, think next time you start to call out a woman or a girl for being bossy. Words have intended and unintended consequences. Instead, use words of empowerment and encouragement. You can also read my earlier blog about women empowering women in the workplace.


Anne Converse Willkomm
Assistant Clinical Professor
Department Head of Graduate Studies
Goodwin College
Drexel University
Posted in leadership-management-skills, interpersonal-communications