Women: the boss, not bossy

Recently, I’ve been witness to a sexist slur that is aggravating – rationally or not. I’d say that since a young age, I’ve been described as ‘bossy’. While I admit I’ve always enjoyed taking the lead and being in control, I am certain that this derogatory description is intertwined with my sex. This is because, albeit from my personal experience, I have never heard the word bossy being used to describe men. Within the playground in primary school, I would choose which game to play or at home with my brother, I would dictate what we would watch on television. I expect that after university upon entering the workplace that I will, again, be called ‘bossy’ for using my initiative and taking the lead during a task. While I am implicitly aware that readers will sigh and roll their eyes at this particular – seemingly futile – allegation of ‘sexism’, I will posit that it contributes to women’s capabilities being misconstrued on a much larger scale. The consequences of this slur are tucking women back into their straitjackets of passivity and minimising their autonomy.

The consequences of this slur are tucking women back into their straitjackets of passivity and minimising their autonomy

Starting from exploring the origins of this slur is central to understanding why it surpasses the excuse of ‘banter’ and holds a more malicious meaning. A rough antonym of ‘bossy’ is ‘submissive’. This adjective has been suffocating for women, particularly in the Victorian era, and it repulses me that it has continued into modern society as a norm of how women should act. While this is likely going to be seen as petty – women have much broader legal protections and opportunities now – the discrimination won’t falter unless the narrative does. Rather, men disdain and despair at women exerting ‘bossiness’ because it is the opposite of how they perceive women should be. Being ‘bossy’ – or taking leadership (if we are going to use the non-sexist synonym) is a necessary component to progressing in one’s career and achieving a higher ranking role. Such roles would, and sometimes still, be limited to men — with only 8 women (3.2%) holding CEO roles in the FTSE 250 as of October 2019 (Women in the Workforce, 2020). Women, when they do achieve these roles, are twice as likely than men to be called ‘bossy’ and are subsequently unpopular in the workplace (Bossy: What’s Gender Got to Do with It?, n.d.)

Perhaps, when women are described as ‘bossy’ it is because a sense of fear is evoked in men.

It is time to change this toxic narrative. Instead of using the negative adjective of ‘bossy’, we should strive to use more positive words in describing innovative, determined women. That way, we can recognise women as proactive, and subvert the misconception of us as weak and passive. For men, this prospect can be perceived as frightening – and it should be. Perhaps, when women are described as ‘bossy’ it is because a sense of fear is evoked in men. It is because of women’s progression in the labour force that the use of this sexist slur has increased – as of October 2019 over a third of non-executive directors for FTSE 250 boards were women (Women in the Workforce, 2020). We are, rightfully, increasing our presence within the highest ranks of the workplace and should continue doing so, but without the burden of being called ‘bossy’.

What, you may ask, can we do now to change this narrative, other than simply not use the adjective ourselves? Well, in March 2014 Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, sponsored the ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign – the campaign uses a range of mediums to discourage the use of the word ‘bossy’ because of its harmful effect on young girls. It raises awareness to those who may not have previously considered the word harmful, as well as promoting equality of women in the workplace.

Sexism in the workplace cuts much deeper than one, simple adjective – think about your narrative in describing women and prevent further discrimination.


Catalyst, Quick Take: Women in the Workforce – UK (July 9, 2020).

Centre for Creative Leadership, Bossy: What’s Gender Got to Do with It? (n.d.)

By Lottie Westerling

Image: Miguel Bruna via Unsplash

One thought on “Women: the boss, not bossy

  1. Lottie could not have put it better myself. From the point of view of a woman in her sixties who has worked all her life and raised a family, who was a feminist in the 70’s, it’s so disappointing that, in spite of so much having changed for the better for women, the common rhetoric has not moved on. Women are so often referred to as bossy and married women as ‘wearing the pants’ in the family, another sexist phrase that has not gone away. Well done you for giving voice to the fact this rhetoric is undermining and outdated. If women are to be successful in the workplace, without having to become men, then we need to call men out on how they refer to women who are being innovative, decisive, organised and showing leadership, as you quite rightly have said.


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