STUDY: How Do Women Really Feel About the Word ‘Bossy?’


This is a pre-Lean In pic

Facebook exec/Lean In founder Sheryl Sandberg‘s “Ban Bossy” campaign used Beyoncé to do the thing she does best: start a conversation. In the process, it inspired praise and backlash among men and women alike.

Viral videos aside, how do American women really feel about the word and the sentiments behind it? SheSpeaks, a “social activation and consumer insights platform” that specializes in helping brands connect with women, recently conducted a survey on the topic–and its findings may surprise you.

For example:

  • 55% of women think being bossy can damage a man’s career
  • Yet only 51% say it can damage a woman’s career

There’s more…

  • A minority (23%) of respondents “somewhat” or “strongly” believe that “bossiness” is, in general, a positive leadership quality
  • The number of women who do and do not recall being called “bossy” is identical at 44%
  • Yet a majority (52%) of those who heard the word say it had no effect on them, and 17% even say it made them feel empowered

We think you’ll agree that these findings draw a more nuanced picture than any PSA campaign can convey.

Aliza Freud, founder and CEO of SheSpeaks, answered some of our questions about the survey.

Aliza Freud HeadshotS

The survey’s findings seem to contradict the Lean In message while also indicating a  persistent double standard. How do you interpret the results?

It’s clear that women believe there is a double standard regarding what they need to achieve in the workplace, and that they have to work harder than men do to get ahead.  This sentiment is reflected in their opinion that women need ambition (75% women vs. 66% of men), strong negotiation skills (67% vs. 60% for men), a strong network (64% vs. 53% for men) and an advanced degree (60% vs. 47% for men).

However, only 2% of women believe that being bossy is a good leadership quality for men, and 6% say it is a good leadership quality for women. So we’re seeing that women are consistent in believing that bossiness is a poor quality for female and male leaders.

The bottom line is that women perceive that they will need to work that much harder and be that much better, because they are still working at a deficit to men.

Was the Ban Bossy initiative productive in sparking a debate over these double standards?

The ‘Lean In’ and Ban Bossy campaigns have been promoted extensively, both offline and online, and have touched on women’s issues that have traditionally been hot conversation topics.

The question for many is whether Ban Bossy, in particular, is the right debate. Our survey data indicates that banning “bossy” may not be the right focus for women; instead women should focus on building their communication skills.  Women in our survey ranked it the #1 most important skill for becoming a successful leader.

The PR industry has a higher female-to-male ratio than most, but its most visible leaders are still men. How can PR/marketing agencies lead on this issue?

The full title of Sandberg’s book is “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” and women in PR have certainly demonstrated the will to lead. This suggests there are other factors holding women back, such as institutional issues (i.e., limited flexibility, as PR professionals may often have to attend to immediate client needs; extensive travel; long hours).

These factors may be limiting women’s ability to balance work/family/other life issues and preferences. Also, women often find informal networks at the highest echelons to be challenging to break into.

What can Lean In do to more directly influence the lives and careers of its audience? How should it respond to criticism that labels its initiatives as a kind of “window dressing?”

One thread I have noticed in the discussion of women in the workplace is the need for flexible work schedules, extended maternity/paternity leaves, and high-quality childcare.

These are tangible and measurable programs that women (and men) say they need to live more satisfying lives, both in and out of the workplace. If the Lean In initiative throws its weight behind these kinds of practical solutions, it could ultimately be viewed as a successful movement and an issue that is more on point, vs. whether or not we should be banning “bossiness.”

What lessons can women who aspire to leadership positions in all fields take from the PSA campaign, the backlash, and the conclusions of your survey?

Women are not a homogeneous group.

While the majority of women say that being called bossy didn’t affect them, there is a clearly a wide range of opinion on this issue.  Women who aspire to leadership positions ultimately need to focus on their goals, and realize that there is no single path to success; they have to discover the approach that works for them and not worry about what others think they should be saying or doing.

What lessons can agencies and clients courting female audiences take from the same?

Brands and agencies should be aware of a couple of things:

1) Women vary widely in their preferences and concerns, so you can’t reach all of them with a single message or with one campaign. Fortunately, there are many communications tools and approaches to define and reach distinct segments of women who are the target audience for the brand.

2) Women are interested in hearing about the benefit and implications of your product or service. This is particularly important to women as we are “benefit focused” shoppers. We want to hear from the brand what the product will do to enhance our lives or make them easier.

What do we think of the SheSpeaks survey? Does it change our ideas about the PSA campaign?

@PatrickCoffee Patrick Coffee is a senior editor for Adweek.