Women in Tech

The Problem with Telling Bossy Girls they have Leadership Skills

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in June 2018 and has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

I first heard of Sherly Sandberg, COO of Facebook, when I watched her Ted Talk. I thought her talk was inspiring and just what women at work needed to hear. I loved when she said women need to sit at the table and how to make your partner a real partner. Her speech motivated me to step up my leadership skills at work. After I listened to Sandberg’s Ted Talk I read her book, Lean In, which expands on her talk.

"I want every little girl who's told she's bossy, to be told instead she had leadership skills." Sheryl Sandberg

Sandberg says that she wants every little girl who is told she’s bossy, to be told she has leadership skills instead. I first started seeing it around the internet, I was again inspired. Yes, I thought. Let’s raise girls to be the boss of the playground, the leader of their girl group. Let’s start acknowledging their smarts, not just their looks. Let’s raise them to be the great leaders we know they can be!

I want girls to feel confident and empowered. I worked at a robotics summer camp for girls in college in the summer between semesters. I think it’s important for women to be in tech and have leadership positions.

However, the more I thought about this idea, the more I wondered if it is what we should be telling girls (or any bossy kid for that matter). Some girls kids are just plan bossy. When my 20-month-old son grabs my pant legs to try and drag me in a certain direction he’s certainly being bossy. Is he also displaying leadership characteristics in that moment? I argue no.

When I think of the “boss” the first person that comes to mind is the boss from the movie Office Space. He strolls around telling his underlings to come in on Saturday with last minute notice and micromanages TPS reports. I think we can all agree that he does not have leadership skills.

Image from Pharmacy Times

I get it. We want girls to feel confident and empowered. I think this is the essence of what Sandberg was getting at but being bossy does not equate to being a leader. As we can see from dictionary.com, To Boss and To Lead mean very different things.

The definition of bossy

Image result for leader vs boss

Bossy

verb (used with object)

  • to be master of or over; manage; direct; control.
  • to order about, especially in an arrogant manner.

Lead

verb (used with object)

  • to go before or with to show the way; conduct or escort
  • to conduct by holding and guiding

Show girls how to lead

Instead of telling bossy girls (or bossy children in general) that they have leadership skills, we should guide them on what it means to be a leader. It’s easy to order others around. When my son was only three months old, he already mastered being “the boss” by crying out whenever he needed something. As parents and adults who kids look up to, we should model what it means to be a leader.

As parents and adults who kids look up to, we can model what it means to be a leader.

We can do this by example when we show patience, empathy, and embrace failure to learn from what went wrong. We can involve our kids in the processes of our lives so they can learn what it means to be a good communicator, help plan a family outing, and have an optimistic outlook. We can be proud of developing our children to be leaders in any aspect of their life. By starting early, we can show our kids that they don’t have to be promoted as the boss in order to lead.

Perceptions of women in leadership

While we can start now nurture our children into being leaders, we still have to acknowledge the gap in female executives and women board members. This topic is a struggle for me because I am one of the women who stepped down from a C-level role when I became a mom. I opted out of executive leadership and while I hold no regrets doing so, it makes it difficult for me to put that pressure on other women to take up the helm because I know they might want to put their families first too.

I do think company culture, team culture, and meeting dynamics are different when women are involved, and those women speak up and sit at the table. I remember in one of my first IT projects there was me and two other women (both my age) on the team. I quickly moved up to being Scrum master and led the Daily Scrums. There weren’t enough chairs at the table in the conference room we held our Daily Scrums in so some people had to sit in chairs along the walls.

My two women team mates sat along the wall while I sat at the head of the table (that is where the projector hookup was). They we solid developers and great when we had one on one discussions. But in the daily scrum they barely spoke loud enough to hear and I don’t recall them ever mentioning a blocking item. Some of the other team members made fun on them for being quite and encouraged them to speak up. Eventually they gained confidence to do so but it took time for them to build confidence.

Women in leadership positions in the United States

In the United States, women are stepping up and serving in leadership positions in historic rates. As of 2018, 25 women serve in the U.S. senate and 102 women serve in the House of Representatives. However, that number takes a depressing turn when it comes to women CEOs. Only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEOs were women in 2018. On the plus side, “The share of women sitting on the boards of Fortune 500 companies has more than doubled, from 9.6% in 1995 to 22.2% in 2017.”

According to statistics found in Catalyst, women are nearly half of the labor force (46.9%) but only about a third (40%) are managers. The higher up the corporate ladder, the fewer women serve in leadership roles, hence the 4.8% women CEOs.

Characteristics of women leaders

I think it’s important to note that we shouldn’t promote a woman to leadership position just because she’s a woman. She should meet the qualifying criteria. I’ve seen posts on LinkedIn sharing that a woman was promoted to the head of an organization, but it doesn’t say what her experience was, what she does, or even her name!

For me personally, I get frustrated when I’m added to a list solely because I’m a woman. That doesn’t mean near as much to be as my work experience, skills, and knowledge I can bring to a project.

Men and women have their own characteristics and styles when it comes to leadership. Some are innate while others are learned. I think it’s best to trust your own style of leadership but study what are the best types for the situation you’re in and the individual people you’re working with.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

According to my mom, one of the arguments of Feminism was if there were more women in leadership positions the world would be more kind but that hasn’t proved true. My mom may be on to something.

According to a 2005 analysis from the American Psychological Association conducted over two decades, Psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, of the University of Wisconsin in Madison found that “men and women are basically alike in terms of personality, cognitive ability and leadership.”

According to the analysis, the idea that men and women lead differently and have different communication styles is a harmful myth. For example, in one experiment analyzed by the report, the participants were not identified as male or female, “none conformed to stereotypes about their sex when given the chance to be aggressive. In fact, they did the opposite of what would be expected – women were more aggressive and men were more passive.”

Hyde observed that these gender difference ideas hurt children. For instance, the idea that boys are better than girls at math. Her meta-analysis found that, “boys and girls perform equally well in math until high school, at which point boys do gain a small advantage. That may not reflect biology as much as social expectations, many psychologists believe.”

Bossy girls and leadership skills

In the math myth, Hyde cited research, “showing that parents’ expectations of their children’s success in math relate strongly to the children’s self-confidence and performance.” Using that information, parents can guide their children to be good leaders through nurturing self-confidence and performance based on positive qualities. Nurturing bossy behavior will make a leader but by teaching teamwork, good communication, and work ethic, we can hopefully teach our girls and boys how to be good leaders.

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Featured Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

References:

1. Men and Women: No Big Difference. American Psychological Association. [Online] https://www.apa.org/research/action/difference.

2. Women in Management: Quick Take. Catalyst. [Online] August 7, 2019. https://www.catalyst.org/research/women-in-management/.

3. The Data on Women Leaders. Pew Research Center. [Online] September 13, 2018. https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/fact-sheet/the-data-on-women-leaders/.

4 comments

    1. Hi! Thanks for your comment. I think you hit the nail on the head with the quote from your post, Women’s Literature: The next chapter. We have to define success for ourselves. Trying to be someone were not as dictated by culture, media, or social pressures won’t bring us that joy.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This take is a very interesting take. But she wasn’t saying that girls should be bossy; she was focusing on the fact that girls that exhibit the same leadership traits as boys are often labeled that way. So instead of developing those skills in girls, or even redirecting the behavior, we shut girls down. I agree that being a leader is very different from being a boss. Unfortunately, boys are more often given the opportunity to learn the difference than girls.

    Like

    1. Hello Tisa, thanks for your comment. Valid point. However, I do think girls are given plenty of learning opportunities to be leaders – maybe even more so than boys which is why we’re seeing the #MeToo movement and loss of chivalry in today’s society. Just because men may hold more leadership positions than women doesn’t mean they’re good leaders. Just because a woman is in a leadership position doesn’t mean she’s a good leader either, but she definitely deserves the opportunity to be there. I hope we’re able to teach all children good leadership qualities and not to judge people on their physical features but by their abilities.

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