Girls will be girls, boys will be bossy

The word bossy has been heavily discussed recently, thanks, at least in part, to the Ban Bossy campaign. To date, this debate has centered on why women get called bossy. But what about men? In this blog post, I will share some new research on the word bossy, and what happens when both men and women act bossy, specifically within a workplace context.

The Ban Bossy campaign, founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandburg states that “When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a ‘leader.’ Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’” (

Decades of psychological research suggest that there is some merit to this claim; and that when it comes to leadership, men generally have an advantage. For instance, Gallup polls taken over the past 60 years show that people consistently say they would prefer to work for a male boss over a female boss (Riffkin, 2014). Similarly, in a series of classic studies, people were asked to select words that commonly describe ‘men’ and ‘women’ as well as ‘successful managers’ (Schein, Müller, Lituchy, & Liu, 1996). The studies found that words used to describe managers were the same ones used to describe men. This puts women who want to lead at an unfair disadvantage—especially considering that other research shows that in practice, women leaders are actually more likely to use effective leadership strategies and styles compared to men (Eagly, Johannesen-Schmidt, & Van Engen, 2003).

Why do people prefer male leaders?

This could be partly explained by the Stereotype Content Model, which suggests that stereotypes can be arranged along two dimensions: perceptions of competence and perceptions of warmth/likability (Glick & Fiske, 2001).  The model asserts that when it comes to non-dominant group members (in this case, women leaders), an increase in one dimension is usually accompanied by a decrease in another. In other words, when women leaders are seen as competent and smart, they are also assumed to be less warm and likeable; while women leaders who are seen as warm and likeable are assumed to be less competent (Glick & Fiske, 2001; Heilman 1995). Men, however, are seen as both competent and warm at the same time.

This is where the word “bossy” comes in. The word bossy describes a person who is leading in a way that lacks warmth and likeability. Given that competent women are assumed to lack warmth, it makes sense that women in leadership roles are more likely to be called bossy. But does this assumption reflect actual actions? Are women more bossy than men?

Bossy by any other name

A recent study surveyed over 200 U.S. leaders about the word bossy in the workplace. Participants were asked to describe what the word bossy means, and then to share their personal experiences with the word bossy (Clerkin, Crumbacher, Fernando, & Gentry, 2015). Ninety-two percent of people said that they have worked with someone who they would consider to be bossy, and 25% said that they have been called bossy at work. However, women were twice as likely to say they were called bossy compared to men. This is consistent with the predictions from the Stereotype Content Model.

Next, the researchers examined participants’ definitions of the word bossy (which included descriptions such as ‘controlling,’ ‘micromanager’, and ‘ignores other people’) and lined them up with ratings of actual leaders’ behaviors from a large leadership competencies database. Results showed that when only the bossy behaviors were examined, men leaders were actually slightly more bossy than women leaders. In other words, even though women were more likely to be called bossy, once the bossy label was removed, men were more likely to do the things that people consider to be bossy (Clerkin, Crumbacher, Fernando, & Gentry, 2015).

This study also found that bossy behaviors aligned with many of the strategies that are commonly considered to be signs of bad leadership—for both men and women. However, people seemed to care more about these negative leadership behaviors when it was women who were doing them. Specifically, bossy behavior was seen by coworkers as more strongly linked to unpromotability if the person in question was a woman.

So should we ban bossy?

This new research shows that, in line with the Ban Bossy Campaign, the word bossy is indeed gendered, and that it is most likely to be leveled against women who take on leadership roles. However, this research also suggests that men get called bossy too (just less often than women) and that their bossiness is linked to unpromotability (just not as strongly as for women). Additionally, it turns out that when it comes to the workplace, men actually appear to be the bossier gender.

These findings suggests that while it might be important to stop calling women bossy, perhaps the real issue is that we are not calling men bossy often enough. It is easy to assume that the solution to gender discrepancies is to encourage women to act like men. But in this case, encouraging women to act more like men also means encouraging bad leadership. So what if we didn’t ban bossy? What if we started calling men bossy instead?


Ban bossy (2014). Ban Bossy Campaign. Retrieved from

Clerkin, C., Crumbacher, C. A., Fernando, J., & Gentry, B. (2015). How to be the boss without being the b-word (bossy). Center for Creative Leadership White Paper.

Clerkin, C., Crumbacher, C. A., Fernando, J., & Gentry, B. (2015). Bossy: What's gender got to do with it? Center for Creative Leadership White Paper.

Eagly, A. H., Johannesen-Schmidt, M. C., & Van Engen, M. L. (2003). Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: a meta-analysis comparing women and men. Psychological bulletin129(4), 569.

Glick, P., & Fiske, S. (2001). Ambivalent stereotypes as legitimizing ideologies: Differentiating paternalistic and envious prejudice. The psychology of legitimacy: Emerging perspectives on ideology, justice, and intergroup relations (pp.  278-306). New York, NY US: Cambridge University Press.

Heilman, M. E. (1995). Sex stereotypes and their effects in the workplace: What we know and what we don’t know. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 10, 3–26.

Riffkin, R. (2014). Americans still prefer a male boss to a female boss. Gallup. Retrieved from:

Schein, V. E., Müller, R., Lituchy, T., & Liu, J. (1996). Think manager-think male: a global phenomenon?. Journal of organizational behavior17(1), 33-41.