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.