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Getting Rid of the B Word

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.

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14 Comments

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Jackie G.

Why would you use the apology as part of step two? That tact is exactly why women end up in a catch 22. We don’t have to apologize for being assertive or directive. We should apologize ONLY for behaviors we know are wrong. Not for being women. This again, feeds back into the female/male gender gap.

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Amy B

Agreed. I would revise that “I’m sorry you felt my tone was inappropriate….” to “It seems you felt my tone was inappropriate….”

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Nena

First, being a woman, I was highly offended by our President elect’s comments on women, but, let’s not keep perpetuating the negativity by constantly reiterating the issue.

Second, let’s move on, draw a circle around ourselves to be the bigger person. It is my experience that when we change our own behaviors, the people around us change. I am considered a “bossy” woman. When I’m called this term I ask the offender, why? Sometimes they have legitimate reasons, I may have been rude, I may have raised my voice, etc. (Admit it, Hilary Clinton can be loud, obnoxious and condescending. This is not proof of good leadership.) If those are the reasons, I try and change my negative behavior while still being assertive, and when I do that, I get better reactions from men. But, if the problem lies in just the fact that I’m assertive and a person that will “git er done”, then the issue lies with the offender, not me, and the offender will be addressed.

I’m reading too many articles portraying women as victims and frankly I’m tired of it. I choose to be a victor, not a victim.

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Paul

It seems the “bossy” label is applied to women, but when a man says the same thing it is some how ok. I think people do not like the delivery from either person – there are names for men who are inappropriately bossy – SOB comes to mind, The feeling is the same regardless of gender. I tell people communications is a 2 way street and involves delivery of the message. if the message is great but the delivery is wrong – people stop listening.

I wish we were better at providing feedback, but usually the recipient of the bossy message is subordinate and is not in the position to say – “I get the message, but I am not here to be talked down to.” That response is not a career enhancing response – I learned that the hard way – lost a really good job because of it – but I learned some things in the process.

With diversity comes new skills, compassion, empathy and mutual respect seem to be at the top of the new leader/supervisor competency list. And being mindful of where we are at the moment when we talk to peers, subordinates, friends and family.

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Megan

While I agree there is a lot we can do for ourselves, it also falls upon men to help change behavior. Women are not solely responsible for how men (or even other women) perceive us negatively, or fall into double standards, because of our gender – there’s a cultural history that continues to be perpetuated. I liken it to the #HeForShe movement. Men who are aware and are actively trying to change their own perception and behavior can have a huge impact when they also have these types of conversations with their colleagues.

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Gee

What if someone just got the position/promotion through connection and doesn’t have any clue about how things are done and just goes around telling people what to do but not showing them how to do it.

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Tammy Seleski

Not sure what age one of the responders to this article is–having been active in helping to change people’s mindset on male/female roles and what each of us can bring to the table collectively/individually for over 50 years, I do not agree that women portray themselves as victims; marginalizing women in that category is offensive to me. I have different experiences as I would much rather have a President that fights for all human rights than one that disparages people based on their race, culture, disability, age, or gender.

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Rhonda

I am not a boss but I am a MOM and the B word is a compliment to me. Own it and rock it and keep on !!! Yes it is unfair that men doing the same things are admired while women are vilified!!! The best way to change that is for WOMEN to change it!!!We must support each other . The first step is allow yourself to be a B**tch and love it!!!

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Theresa

Accepting it is saying its okay and its not! That’s no different than a person of color using the “N” word with other people of color and getting mad when others do it.
It’s not okay at all, and it should never been seen as a complement if it isn’t used to “complement” others as well.

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Neal R.

I believe your article could viewed as a “sexist” article because of the nature of the article itself. It implies that “being called bossy… is nothing new for women in positions of authority.” I couldn’t disagree more. A different author would probably take the same position by stating ‘being called bossy ­– or worse – is nothing new for men in positions of authority’. Both of these “b” words would be considered negative feedback for any person under any situation, especially those in positions of authority. A man or a women can be bossy. So if anyone calls a person “bossy”, it’s not because of their sex. I suggest it is because of their delivery method, regardless of their position. A person can’t change others but a person can change themselves if they choose to change. I recommend an old leadership book titled, “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. Of course without statistics, you could say “I’m just shooting from the hip,” since I have no data to support my case…

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Stephanie

Both men and women can behave badly and both men and women have been called “bossy”, but the threshold for labeling a woman as badly-behaved or “bossy” is significantly lower. There are also different consequences. In my experience, folks forgive or make excuses for the average man’s occasional bad behavior, but often stamp a woman as an eternally unattractive, unstable, abnormal, unprofessional, disruptive, hysterical, illogical, and angry freak to be avoided.

Most people are not going to notice until you draw their attention to the disparity. Not because they’re bad people, but because these are the standards and presumptions they are accustomed to. The only way most of us will know what someone else is enduring is when the people on the receiving end of undeserved negativity make their discomfort and dissatisfaction known. The ones dishing it out then have a chance to examine what they’re doing and make any necessary changes.

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