Being called bossy – or worse – is nothing new for women in positions of authority. Back in 2014, in fact, there was a stream of articles tackling the issue with some success at diminishing the use of the “b word”. Yet the broader tactic of labeling female leaders with negative words has far from ended, as you can tell by reading any number of headlines from the most recent election.
Why? In some cases, the use of negatively connoted words is intentional. But more often, it’s not a conscious choice by those who use them. Instead, it’s an unintentional use of gender stereotyping.
Many of these negative labels are used because their more positive synonyms, like assertive, decisive, ambitious, are being unconsciously reserved for the traditional purveyors of those traits: men. See this article and this one for more on that.
Unintentionally, women are often labeled differently for exhibiting the same behaviors as men. That’s a problem, not just because the practice perpetuates gender stereotypes, but because negative labels can hinder women’s careers.
So what are we going to do about it? For better or worse, it’s up to every “bossy” lady out there to reframe female authority. Here’s four tips to do that:
#1: Earn it. As Adam Grant explained in a 2014 article, the bossy label is often applied to people who assert authority without the status to back it up. That makes sense, right? Who wants to be told what to do by someone who doesn’t have experience or authority to inform their directions?
However, this is a fine line. Experience isn’t the only qualifier to a valid opinion, of course. Additionally, research shows that women with equal qualifications are often viewed as less experienced than male counterparts. So even if you are qualified, you might be unconsciously perceived that way.
Whenever you’re labeled as “bossy” or “too assertive”, take the time to understand why. Is it because you’re really overstepping your experience or rank? Or is it because someone is undervaluing your legitimate authority? If it’s the latter, move on to the next step.
#2. Call it out. If you’re being labeled “bossy” for actions that would go unnoticed or even be respected in a male colleague, it’s important to make it known. Why? This op-ed in Forbes provides an in-depth justification, but the short-and-sweet version is simply that calling out sexist comments raises awareness and reduces the frequency of those comments.
Of course, that can be uncomfortable. You might be worried that you’ll create tension in a work relationship or put someone on the defensive. However, you don’t have to be as direct as saying “You would never have treated a male colleague in the same way you did me, if he gave the same direction.” (Although, feel free to do that if you’re comfortable.)
Instead, you can give an example of when the same behavior, by either a man or woman, was well received. Then ask why your actions or words were interpreted differently. For example: “I’m sorry you felt my tone was inappropriate. Is there something I did differently than when John in accounting similarly requested you do a task? You seemed to receive that better.”
You can call out a disparity in reception, without placing blame. In many cases, that non-accusatory phrasing will lead to a more productive conversation. (Read this article for more on that)
#3. Know and own your approach. There’s a chance you’re leading through coalition-building and persuasion. But if you’re being called bossy, it’s more likely that you’re exhibiting traits like ambition, authority and decisiveness that are more common in males. That’s alright. There’s really no right way to lead, and you’ll always have more success playing to your own strengths, rather than those traditionally associated to your gender.
But if you’re caught in a scenario where your assertiveness is being perceived negatively, it can help to call out what you’re really doing. That doesn’t necessitate an apology, or even a change in your demeanor. Simply saying, “Let’s be honest, here. I’m an assertive and decisive person,” can help get everyone on the same page.
This tactic leaves less room for others to make their own value judgments of your leadership style, while also showing your own self-awareness. It also helps open a conversation on your terms, if your leadership style really isn’t conducive to your team or work environment.
#4. Focus on common goals. At the end of the day, the way you work is a tool you use to move your entire team and your organization’s mission forward. Make sure that’s your guiding principle, and then communicate that goal to your coworkers. Explain how you feel your actions and language are fostering a mission-oriented culture and help your team achieve common tasks.
That should help reframe your assertiveness as a tool for the entire team, rather than a personality trait that only serves you or your ambition.
But even as you call out your leadership style and relate it to common desired outcomes, be careful. There’s a fine line between explaining and apologizing that you don’t want to cross. Your leadership style is yours, even if it seems incongruent to your gender to some. Use it. Own it. And don’t let anyone call you bossy when it’s undeserved.