I would like to give you a scenario. There is a little boy on a playground. He is telling a small group of followers how to play a game he’s invented. Without any bullying, he directs them regarding where to move, what toys they are allowed to play with, and the scenario he has imagined without input from his peers. The others listen to him and follow his directions in playing this game.
How would you describe this little boy?
Now here is another scenario for you. There is a women who is a low level executive at a large company. She manages multiple departments and dozens of employees. She is direct and to the point. She speaks her mind, and makes sure her opinion is clearly heard. She keeps her personal life private, and only choses to discuss work matters at the office.
How would you describe this woman?
Now switch those two scenarios. Imagine the little boy was a little girl, and the working woman was a man. Would your opinion about them change? Shouldn’t they be the same? Or would the little girl then become bossy and pushy while the working man is described as authoritative and self-confident?
Pantene recently made an advertisement that takes two people: a man and a woman, and puts them in the same scenarios but describing them differently. Here’s the video:
But, as I described above, it isn’t just in the workplace where women are perceived differently if they choose a path of leadership and power. It starts years before that — on children’s playgrounds and in our homes.
Gendered Words Start in Early Childhood
If a little girl tells another child what to do, she is often told she is being “bossy.” It’s a word used almost exclusively to describe girls and women, not men. She is told not to be presumptuous, to be more reserved and polite (or even “ladylike”), and often more strongly encouraged to share. “Little girls should be graceful, nice, caring, and agreeable.” All the while, little boys are allowed to be strong, self-assured, and fearless.
Girls who choose to be more self-confident and tenacious as they grow older will have the word bossy trail them into adulthood and throughout their careers. My mother tells me I am bossy on a regular basis and it is infuriating. It usually stems from a conversation where I am telling her about a grievance I’m having in the workplace. If I don’t agree with a decision a superior has made, my mom will usually just dismiss me and tell me that I don’t like it because I like to be “bossy” and I don’t want others telling me what to do.
Modern Women in the Workplace Lacking Confidence
This is a type of everyday sexism that we have to endure as women which men cannot understand. While a man is free to move throughout his career being sure of himself and driven, able to develop into a leader without worrying, a woman navigates her career like a game of chess. She worries that each move she takes will earn her a stigma of a cold, calculating, uncaring, ambitious woman who doesn’t care about others as she becomes more successful. Not only does she have to worry about men perceiving her this way — but other women too. Yes, women also find other women “bossy” or “pushy.” We can’t even stick together in feminist solidarity on this one.
Because of these stigmas, woman can’t even contribute their success to their own abilities. According to Sheryl Sanberg, author of Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, “Women attribute their success to working hard, luck, and help from other people. Men will attribute that same success to their own core skills.” Simple words are holding us back, making us doubt ourselves, and even making us attribute any success we have to outside influences instead of our own capabilities and worth.
Should We Take the Word Back?
Some women like Tina Fey are trying to take back words like “bossy” and “bitch”. After all, she wrote a book titled Bossypants.
She was the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live. And she is helping to change the face of comedy and entertainment, making it more acceptable to think women are funny (a whole other subject of sexism if you ask me).
Fey: “Maybe what bothers me the most is that people say that Hillary is a bitch. Let me say something about that: Yeah, she is. And so am I and so is this one.” (Pointing to Amy Poehler)
Poehler: “Yeah, deal with it.”
Fey: “Know what? Bitches get stuff done.”
While some women are trying to own these descriptors, they are still prevalent in the workplace in a negative tone — and this negativity still starts so long before that. Little girls should not be labeled as bossy when they are showing assertiveness as they develop, in contrast with little boys. They should be encouraged to be opinionated and self-confident. We should nurture them when they display leadership abilities instead of quelling these inclinations.
Raising the Next Generation of Women CEOs
If we are going to raise the next generation of female leaders and we expect more of them to take on the roles of CEOs in companies like Mary Barra at GM and Marissa Mayer at Yahoo, we need stop labeling their leadership traits as negative qualities. We need them to realize that they have the ability to develop the skills and know-how needed to become these future leaders just the same as boys. We need them to understand that they can work hard and develop the skills needed to gain leadership roles in the workplace. Stories of Barra and Mayer and even Clinton make national headlines because they are still working to break the glass ceiling for the rest of us. Still, those negative terms like bossy, selfish, and bitchy still follow them around in the working world today. Even the word “ambitious” can be negative when applied to a woman. Why is that?
The percentage of women who are CEO’s in Fortune 500 Companies is still barely 5%.
The next time you see a little girl on the playground being assertive, compliment her for it. Tell her that leaders have to be assertive and ambitious. Tell her that it is ok to be those things, and that girls don’t have to fit the mold from past generations. Tell her that she is honing her skills for a position as a future CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And let’s work for a future where such women are no longer rare exceptions to the general rule.
Also, let her know that if someone calls her “bossy,” she has permission to tell them to shove it!