Female leaders: Challenging the concept of being bossy

There is a double standard that challenges the potential of female leaders today. Behaviors exhibited by males that socially exemplify leadership, when exhibited by females elicit a different reaction.

In article one of this series, “Helping youth process and move beyond gender constructs,” we briefly explored the idea of gender constructs and a few ways we can work to be supportive of young people regardless of their gender. Again, gender constructs refer to the "appropriate" or "ideal" behaviors a person of a specific gender should exhibit. These ideal behaviors are reinforced by our society and culture, both intentionally and unintentionally. Historically, the word "gender" was accepted as a term to indicate the socialized aspects of masculinity and femininity; an alternative to describing biological sex.

The limitations and challenges such constructs put on young people are astounding. In the next two articles in this series, two constructs will be discussed. The discussion of these two challenges is not meant to limit the gender constructs conversation to just these two, nor is it any indication of their importance over other limitations created by gender constructs. Rather, these are two very common limitations that as adults we've most likely experienced and unintentionally perpetuated in our lifetimes. In no way is this article meant to blame or shame you. Instead, it is meant to raise awareness of some of the consequences our social constructs around gender have for our youth.

First, let's look at women and girls. One challenge faced by women and girls today revolves around the idea of leadership. Behaviors exhibited by a man or boy that are described as "leadership" are often the same behaviors that result in a woman or girl being identified as being "bossy." Bossy, unlike leader or leadership, does not have the same positive connotation. Instead, it is often a precursor to other more negative words such as "combative" or "hostile," or used in a tone of voice that clearly tells girls it is not a desirable quality. That said, no wonder girls feel discouraged from stepping up into leadership roles, from raising their hands in class or from practicing the skills that go into leadership.

In fact, COO of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg has recognized this as such an issue she started the Ban Bossy campaign. As girls move from elementary to middle school, their self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than that of boys. Similarly, girls are two times more likely to worry about being seen as bossy when taking on leadership roles. The Center for Creative Leadership surveyed workplace professionals and found that women and men are equally as likely to exhibit behaviors characteristic to being bossy, but that women were twice as likely to be identified as such.

This is a challenge that plagues all female leaders, so as we move into election season with at least two women candidates in the presidential primary, try to be conscious of the language used in counter ads and speeches against the female candidates. Politics and public figures are some of the easiest arenas to identify gender constructs. Noticing the words people use can be a good conversation to have with youth to help them learn how to think critically about media coverage.

"Caregivers who celebrate their girl’s assertiveness can buffer them against the culture’s mixed, sometimes toxic messages about girl’s personal authority and power. What we say matters as much as what we do," said Rachel Simmons, co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute. She continues in the Ban Bossy campaign to list 10 things you can do as adults to make a difference in shaping your daughter's perspectives and abilities to lead. I’ve adapted them below, as we believe many of her suggestions are important for your interactions with all young people in your life.

  1. Encourage all youth, both boys and girls, to lead equally.
  2. Be conscious of the way you talk with young people in your life.
  3. Make your home an equal household by switching up chore assignments and paying all kids the same amount for the same activity.
  4. Teach youth to respect their feelings; it’s OK to feel however they feel and talk about it.
  5. Seize the power of organized sports and activities like 4-H.
  6. Get media literate together.
  7. Let them solve problems on their own.
  8. Encourage youth to step outside their comfort zones.
  9. Women with girls in your life: model assertive behavior.
  10. Men with girls in your life: know your influence.

Michigan 4-H and Michigan State University Extension promotes programs that help all young people develop their life skills, enhance their sense of self-worth and grow their inner leader. Stay tuned for more articles in this series to come!

Other articles in series:

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