Hannah Pearson
By on May 4, 2014 in Women
Read time: 8 minutes | No Comments

Why gendered language matters

When Sheryl Sandberg launched her new ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign in conjunction with the Lean In organisation and the US Girl Scouts, gendered language came back on the agenda.

The #banbossy campaign has a seemingly straight forward proposition – that little girls get called ‘bossy’ more often than boys, which leads to them being less likely to put themselves forward as leaders later in life. Little boys, on the other hand, are seldom called bossy, and parents are more positive towards their bossy behaviour.

In a follow up TED talk interview in December 2013 to her ‘Why we have too few women leaders’ talk from 2010, Sandberg declared,

“And so next time you all see someone call a little girl “bossy,” you walk right up to that person, big smile, and you say, “That little girl’s not bossy. That little girl has executive leadership skills.”

All in all, a positive idea to inspire young girls to become leaders.

However, the campaign has pretty much been ripped apart from all sides: feminists who say that women have bigger issues to worry about than being called bossy, anti-feminists who say that there is no such gender bias and it’s all being made up, and parents in the middle who reckon that they are as likely to call their sons bossy as their daughters.

Still, for those who claim that the word bossy is neutral and has no gender bias, there is some cold, hard data to support the claim that females bear the brunt of the bossy brush.

The data behind bossiness

Nicolas Subtirelu, a PhD student at the Dept of Applied Linguistics and ESL at Georgia State University took it upon himself to check out if there really was a bias in the way that the word bossy is used – and found a staggering difference.

Bossy results

Out of the 101 random samples he took from the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English), he found that the word bossy was almost three times more likely to be applied to females than males.

Another researcher, Alon Lichinsky, used Google Books Ngram viewer to research the top ten nouns shown after the word bossy. The result? Four out of the ten nouns specifically referred to women (bossy woman, women, wife and mother) , whilst zero specifically referred to men.

There has been fierce debate as to whether the data was correct and various ‘experiments’ have been conducted using Google search to see how many instances of ‘bossy little boy’ vs ‘bossy little girl’ turn up. One, Cathy Young, searched specific phrases on Google to disprove a gender bias of how the word bossy is applied:

  • H/she is bossy
  • He/she is too bossy
  • Bossy little boy/girl
  • My brother/sister is bossy and
  • My son/ daughter is bossy

She found the total number of instances for males was 553,508 and for females 419,300 and therefore drew the conclusion that it was simply nonsense that women were called bossy more frequently than men.

However, Subtirelu soundly beats these findings down, pointing out that research using such specific phrases is very restrictive. In fact, he goes further and searches more phrases with the word bossy, and finds… 1,314,928 instances where bossy refers to males, and 2,016,470 cases where the word refers to females. Case in point.

Which gender do you think of?

The other argument is that the word bossy could be used in a positive or negative sense. The same journalist, Young, looks at examples where bossy might not necessarily be negative: a blog for relationship advice called “How to be Bossy in Love without being Bitchy”, Tina Fey’s book “Bossypants” or the children’s book, “Christmas with Rita and Whatsit”.

Again, Young cherrypicks these examples: I’m surprised she didn’t raise up Bossy Bear as an example to counter Little Miss Bossy.

And beyond hard data, think to your own experience – when you imagine the word bossy, which gender do you more readily think of? I’m sure that in most cases, it would be feminine. And how about it being a positive personality trait?

Have you ever admired someone’s bossiness: “Wow, she’s really bossy – I wish I could be like her”? Thought of an instance yet? No, I didn’t think you would.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word bossy as ‘Fond of giving people orders; domineering’. One of their example sentences is even gendered itself: ‘a bossy, meddling woman’.

In fact, if you go so far as to look at their suggested synonyms for bossy, you find ‘cocky’ – a term undeniably masculine (for obvious reasons!) but is not necessarily a negative personality trait, meaning ‘Conceited or confident in a bold or cheeky way’.

Beyond bossy

Now’s the time to point out that I don’t think being bossy is a quality that denotes a leader, and I think equating bossiness with executive leadership skills is quite a leap. After all, none of us want a bossy boss, someone who is domineering, doesn’t take no for an answer and doesn’t listen to you. A good leader is someone who manages to convince you that you want to do something, not someone who forces you to do something.

However, as researcher Subtirelu notes, when research shows that a word, whether positive or negative, is predominantly used for one gender, it becomes telling.

Indeed, as Robin Lakoff, Professor of Linguistics Emirata at the University of Califoria, Berkley, explains:

“Language choices, as I argued in 1973, are diagnostic. If there exists a word that can be used of only the members of one gender, although both genders can participate in the behavior it describes (like “bossy”); if the same word has different meanings when used to describe one gender than the other (like “ambitious”); or if the same kind of behavior is described with one word for one gender, another for the other, positive for the first and negative for the second (“stud” vs. “slut”), that is strong evidence that males and females are being treated differently and the latter, in all probability, worse. So even a single word can reveal larger and deeper problems in the real world.”

Although women are more frequently described as bossy, it seems strange that this could be the case when there are significantly fewer female leaders out there. How can women be bossier if they are not the boss? Is this then a case of women being labelled as bossy in a subconscious attempt to silence their voices and prevent women from reaching a position of authority?

Banning bossy won’t work

Now, let’s imagine we managed to ban the word bossy from the English lexicon.

What next?

Well, I can only imagine that other words would be waiting on the sidelines, eager to take bossiness’ place. Words such as bitch and aggressive would fill the void. Indeed, aggressive is one I’ve certainly been called (much to my chagrin – it still torments me today) and Sandberg in her same talk (at 8:43 mins) even asks men and women to raise their hands if they’ve been called ‘too aggressive’ at work – a few men raise their hands, whilst almost all the women in the room do.

Lakoff likens the attempt to ban the word bossy with the feminist movement in the 70s, where women campaigned for the use of ‘Ms’ for women, as an equivalent to ‘Mr’ for men, so that they wouldn’t need to be defined in relation to their marital status.

Has it worked? No – women nowadays call themselves ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ or… ‘Ms’. So the word has been included in the lexicon, but has far from managed to expel the others.

The moral of the story? That simply deciding to eliminate a word doesn’t work.

Reappropriate bossy?

An alternative to eliminating the word bossy when describing a woman could be to reappropriate it instead, to embrace it and give it a newer, better meaning. Perhaps doing this could make bossy the equivalent to having executive leadership skills.

After all, the same has been done for the word ‘queer’. In a study by Galinsky et al, queer, once used as a pejorative term, began to be reappropriated in the late 80s by the homosexual community as a self-label used to describe gay men and lesbians in a proud way.

It turned the term from being something hurtful to instead positive and empowering, proving two points:

  1. That names are powerful
  2. That the meaning of names can be changed, negotiated and renegotiated

Bearing the above two points in mind, can we reappropriate the word bossy? Unlikely – women who are called bossy at work do not really constitute a segment of society in the same way that the gay community does. That would mean that it would be much harder to mobilise these women to start self-labelling themselves as bossy and turn it into a positive trait and group movement. Would I want to self-label myself as bossy at work? Heaven forbid, no!

Should women take a backseat?

So, banning bossy won’t work, reappropriation won’t work – should women just stop aiming for power altogether and take a backseat to the men, thereby avoiding being called bossy altogether?

Obviously not.

But there is an alternative. What we need to spread is the acceptance that there are different ways of being a leader, and not all have to be in an alpha-male domineering way. That way may have worked when all the power was at the top of the business, the CEO told everyone to jump and off they jumped, like lemmings from a cliff.

What the new climate of business nowadays requires is a more bottom-up approach, a more collaborative way of dealing with customers, with colleagues, with stakeholders. And that approach certainly cannot be a bossy one. Instead, those traits of supporting and getting buy-in from a team tends to be a more feminine than masculine quality.

As Mary Beard, one of my favourite Classicists says,

“Putting it bluntly, having women pretend to be men may be a quick fix, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.”

As she traces the history of women’s voices through western literature and society, from the Odyssey to modern day politics in Afghanistan, she points out that the power of oratory, of speech, is inextricably linked to masculinity.

Telemachus in the Odyssey tells his mother to shut up, we have numerous accounts in Ovid’s Metamorphoses where women are transformed, robbing them of their power of speech, and that women were pretty much only given the right to speak when speaking of their own troubles or those of womenkind – they were not allowed to speak on behalf of all the nation.

Calling women bossy is just another way of reminding women that they are trying to take on an authority that they shouldn’t have.

Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University Washington DC, elaborates on the double bind women find themselves in:

“If they talk in these ways [“let’s do this” instead of “do this”], which are associated with and expected of women, they seem to lack confidence, or even competence. But if they talk in ways expected of someone in authority, they are seen as too aggressive.”

So what can we do?

Reappropriate the image

The study on reappropriating words gave an example of the positive impact that reappropriating words had. Children in a test were divided by eye colour into ‘blue eyes’ or ‘brown eyes’ camps, with the ‘blue eyes’ students given preferential treatment and told that they were superior to the ‘brown eyes’.

Once the study finished, and the ‘brown eyes’ stigma was removed, the researchers found that the ‘brown eyes’ children completed a test in just 2.5 minutes – compared to 5.5 minutes the day before, when they were still subject to the stigma of being a ‘brown eyes’. They were able to concentrate at the task in hand fully, instead of worrying that a negative result would reinforce the stigma against them.

What we need is far more than just banning or reappropriating the words bossy, aggressive or bitch – what we need is to reappropriate the image of a working, powerful woman as positive for society – rather than threatening.

Perhaps when we reach that point, women can finally concentrate on giving their all, instead of worrying about how they are perceived.