‘Little Miss Bossy’ needs a new name


bossy person is someone who has “given to ordering people about; [is] overly authoritative; domineering.” The term has a place: to address asymmetrical power dynamics and overbearing leadership. 

In the workplace, men and women are equally “bossy,” but we use the word to describe women twice as often as men, according to the Center of Creative Leadership. The disproportionate use of the term to describe women wrongly suggests female leadership is unfavorable.  

This is a problem because the data shows women are good leaders. A series of leadership tests conducted by the Harvard Business Review saw women outscore men in 17 out of 19 capabilities that differentiate excellent leaders. 

Despite an apparent capacity for leadership, women have been historically underrepresented in leadership roles. This year, there was a record high of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies—at only 8.8 per cent.

There are diverse reasons behind the asymmetrical gender ratio in senior management positions, many of which stem from societal expectations placed on women.

Despite efforts in recent years to encourage girls to take charge, the media still favors docile women. Sometimes leadership qualities lead to mocking from fictional TV peers, making femininity and assertiveness appear as mutually exclusive. 

Women can internalize these gender stereotypes to the extent that they feel culpable if they stray from the kind of temperament society considers acceptable. 

Another study identified three main image concerns for individuals in the workplace: seeming bossy, unqualified, or simply different from peers. As women are primarily identified as being “bossy,” image concerns prevent them from stepping up as leaders.

A fear of being called overbearing is stifling many women’s leadership skills. 

When women are apprehensive of appearing too overbearing, the workforce loses capable leaders rather than benefiting from their skills. This problem partially originates from how the word “bossy” is used to describe little girls.

According to David Hauser, Queen's professor who specializes in judgment and social cognition, a gender association between women and overbearing leadership likely indicates a “cultural schema”—what our culture associates with a particular gender. 

Using “bossy” casually to describe young girls is harmful, especially when there’s a double standard that sees boys treated differently. 

Perception and ownership of the word is also inconsistent—some women have begun reclaiming it, while others continue to consider it a criticism. 

“Bossy” should be used selectively for severe behaviors, not as a synonym for “girl boss,” or a mildly assertive leader. Calling girls “bossy” whenever they display leadership traits sends the message that they don’t belong in leadership positions. 

Actress Amy Poehler celebrates bossy women, and her meaning of the word is someone who “cares and commits and is a natural leader.”  

If everyone adopted Poehler’s definition, “bossy” would be an ideal character trait. Yet, to most, the term primarily has a negative, gendered connotation. 

Even if the intended use of the word is positive, its underlying meaning may disincentivize future leadership behaviors as initial displays are met with perceived criticism. We must stop using a term that means overly authoritative for appropriately authoritative girls and women. 

Aimée is a third-year Commerce student and one of The Journal's Assistant News Editors.

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