The social science behind 'bossiness'

Businesswoman Daria Burke appeared on the March 22 edition of "Melissa Harris-Perry."

How would you characterize a successful leader? Confident? Good communicator? Decisive? What if that leader is a woman? Too often, then she is assigned another, harsher adjective: "bossy." 

Amid the recent controversy about "Lean In" author Sheryl Sandberg's "Ban Bossy" campaign, many have focused on the stigma attached to assertive and ambitious women. But the “bossy” stigma can attach itself to women at a very young age. A study cited by the Girl Scouts of America in support of the campaign found that by middle school, 25% of girls are less likely than boys to assume leadership positions for fear of being called “bossy.”

This raises an important question: How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them to the top?

Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman conducted a study in 2011 attempting to determine whether men or women were better leaders. They asked leaders to rate their peers across 16 leadership competencies. According to the data posted in their Harvard Business Review article "Are Women Better Leaders Than Men?", women scored higher than men in all but one of the 16 competencies and in 12 of the 16, women out-scored men by large margins. This includes attributes that are seen as inherently male, such as taking initiative and driving for results.

So, then, outside of blatant sexism, what are the real deterrents to women assuming leadership positions?

Women must be likable and are penalized when we aren’t

Everyone has heard of the enduring feminist aphorism that well-behaved women rarely make history. That may be true, but when most women speak up—by, say, making difficult personnel decisions or otherwise exhibiting characteristics that are stereotypically male—they’re often labeled "bossy," or worse. For most women, being liked means playing to gender stereotypes. It means avoiding self-promotion and not negotiating for the compensation they deserve.

This is doubly true for women of color. When Ariel Investments President Mellody Hobson made race the focus of a recent TED Talk, friends warned her that addressing race head on would make her seem like a ”militant black woman” and hurt her career. Hobson is arguably the last person anyone would label “militant.”

The reality is, women can be both successful and liked. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough evidence to this point. Which leads to the second issue.

Lack of female role models in leadership

White men represent 30% of the U.S. population, yet they hold 70% of corporate board positions. This leaves a dearth of female leaders to demonstrate a range of styles. People tend to learn leadership styles by observing others, leaving a generation of women left to emulate men. And while men can and should serve as mentors and role models for women, they can’t help young women navigate feminine nuance.

This need for greater exposure to executive women role models has fueled the development of professional organizations like mine, Black MBA Women. The goal is to create the access to senior executive black women and facilitate dialogue in a safe peer-to-peer environment that corporate settings often fail to encourage, and to aid members in finding their authentic voices. This is particularly important as young women are graduating from college and entering white-collar employment at much higher rates than ever before. Strong female role models are essential to ending the socialization of self-doubt in our girls and to teaching them resilience, fearlessness, and that there’s room to be confident, competent and compassionate.

Invisibility & limitations on mobility

Being one of only a few women at a company can lead to a feeling of “otherness.” According to the 2014 Catalyst report on “Being the ‘Other’ in US Workplaces,”

"People who feel like an “other” not only feel different, but also feel separated from the essential aspects of a group. And if they do not experience belonging in a group, they may consequently be excluded. People who are different may take on the status of "outsider": they are not truly embraced as part of the team, and they are excluded from opportunities.

This separation often leads women to focus more on performance, forgetting that image and exposure are at least as critical to their success. When a woman assumes the role of “outsider,” she makes it easier for those in positions of influence to exclude her. In a corporate setting, this usually results in her creating greater distance between herself and the power structures at the top of an organization.

Otherness is further complicated when race and ethnicity are factored in. In the Catalyst study, researchers reported that 46% of women who felt racially/ethnically different were more likely to downsize their aspirations than women who did not feel different, and were twice as likely as men to do so. The presence or absence of inclusion facilitates women to further pursue or altogether avoid leadership roles.

Let’s face it: there exists the tension between the idea that women in the workplace need to advocate for themselves (negotiating higher salaries, being more assertive) and the understanding that it’s going to take policy to create an environment in the workplace for women to do that (pay equity, affordable childcare, paid family leave).

In the meantime, let’s pay better attention to the social science of leadership—which must be evaluated by behavior, not race or gender.

Daria Burke is a marketing and brand strategist, and the founder of Black MBA Women. Follow her on Twitter, and watch her contributions to our recent "MHP" panel below.