Bossy?! Is that an insult?

By Caitlin Kelly


Did you see this recent piece in The Wall Street Journal?

Most dictionary entries for “bossy” provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries’ “bossy, meddling woman” to Urban Dictionary’s “She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone.” Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.

Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. When a little boy takes charge in class or on the playground, nobody is surprised or offended. We expect him to lead. But when a little girl does the same, she is often criticized and disliked.

How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?

Much as I have very mixed feelings allowing corporate cheerleader Sheryl Sandberg to be the mouthpiece for women — hello, anyone else out there?! — I like this leadership and her new website, 

Her goal, and one I admire, is to encourage young girls, and those who raise and teach them, to speak up and speak out, to claim and re-claim their voices, both literal and political.


Here’s another take on this, from the consistently brilliant blogger Stacia Brown.

Did you see this wonderful collection of black and white images of five-year-old Emma, mimicking powerful, legendary women of the past? Amazing!

I think every young girl, especially, needs to know that her voice, ideas and opinions have value. Becoming a leader means stepping up, taking risks, speaking out and being brave.

Yes, she may end up bullied or called names or shouted at or booed for her daring. For being….herself.

Sticks and stones, kids.

One of my favorite beaux called me — affectionately but accurately — bossyboots.

Loved it.

Have you been called bossy?

Did you take it as a mark of pride?

34 thoughts on “Bossy?! Is that an insult?

  1. great post caitlin. i always think about barbra streisand, (who i’m frequently told i resemble), who said that she is often talked about a a controlling bitch, because she likes to have a say over her own shows and all of the elements involved. if she were a man, she might be called a creative genius, ala orson welles. i’ve been called a ‘subversive’ and ‘leader of a wolf pack’, by a horrible boss who i disagreed with, in my past. i replied that i really did not have the time nor desire to organize an uprising, but i gave my notice, quit that job without having another, knowing it would all be okay, i always ‘find a way.’

    1. Thanks!

      It’s utter bullshit to shame a girl or woman for having the guts and courage to take care of her needs and those of others. It’s just a way to shut us down —- and for whose benefit? Hmmm. Probably not ours.

      You don’t have to be a bitch to be self-confident, or unkind to get shit done. But you will (as we know) get a lot of pushback from people this threatens. Unless you are behaving illegally, unethically or immorally (and that’s a lot of room), why is it anyone’s business if we get on with things?

      1. absolutely. and even goes with some organized religion’s fear of having women as leaders. the women are powerful, intuitive, smart, communicative, and have that magical power of being able to bring new life into the world if they so choose. they might even ‘tempt’ the men , leading them into god knows what kind of sin – that’s some might juju and see why some may be threatened by all that.

  2. You just gave me a flashback to high schools when someone called me a “bossy know-it-all” just because we had gone on a trip to France and I spoke the best French and sort of took the lead. It stung then, because my friend, who was trying to fix me up on a date for the junior prom didn’t succeed. Now, though, I look back and realize that I’m okay with that label. At the beginning of the school year, my daughter (5th grade) wasn’t speaking up in class or participating enough. Her teacher and I challenged her to raise her hand at least once in every subject. Yesterday I saw the teacher who said, “Sarah isn’t shy any more. She participates all the time.” I am so proud. Now I think she needs to become “bossy.” 😉

    1. It’s very tough…You have to be OK with the labels, because we WILL get labeled. I highly doubt that people like Martha Stewart or Oprah or Joanna Coles (EIC of Cosmo) or Mary Barra (CEO of GM)…anyone who has hit the heights of leadership — freaks out when people call(ed) her names. They expect it, armor up/shrug it off, and keep going.

      I think you and I are pretty clear…this is not about being a nasty, rude bitch. But it looks like it to many people and they will say a lot of smack to slow us down.

  3. Another lady with mixed feelings about Sheryl Sandberg and the Lean In thing. I have my criticisms but I also know a lot of women who are really inspired by it so…mixed feelings. (Also I used the phrase “lean in” totally unironically while talking about my career the other day, and immediately felt confused and ashamed and also like maybe I should just read the book already.)

    Anyway, I was never called bossy when I was a kid because I was so timid and terrified of the world. I’m much more assertive now, though, and if someone were to call me “bossy” because of it I’d take it as a compliment. 🙂

    1. I hate the idea that working longer and harder = a more valuable or enjoyable life for women. We have many interests and ideas, not just a just for more $$$$ and power and a C-suite job.

      1. That’s exactly it. I hate the idea of being defined solely as an economic unit. I understand what proponents of this are trying to do but it’s not something that interests me.

        Plus I also think about women for whom all of the conversation about corporate careers is not even in their realm of possibilities, even if they wanted it to be. I don’t know, like you said, mixed feelings.

  4. I personally like Sheryl Sandberg, but I’m also wary of how she (a woman of unmistakeable privilege) has become the de facto mouthpiece,

    I remember as a kid or teenager being called bossy and thinking to myself, “Well, yeah, I’m in charge.” (Often, as it happens, because I was put in charge of a group or assignment at the time. Why me acting like I was surprised anyone is beyond me.) These days I tend to take it as a compliment – though I do admit I still examine my own behavior to see if I’m being called it because I’m simply acting in charge, or if my leadership style could use some tweaking.

    1. I wonder why she’s IT….why no others? And someone less corporate?!

      At 16, in an elected by my peers position, I was a tribe leader (had to guide/lead 12-16 yr olds) at camp for a month, twice. It taught me a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

  5. Gilraen

    I have been called bossy. I don’t mind to be called bossy. I am bossy and I don’t see it as a negative. But maybe that is because I have a bossy mum (and gran) too. I grew up in a family where bossy females are the standard.

  6. Sheryl Sandberg’s book is on my TBR list. I haven’t gotten to it yet but I’ve heard a lot about it. Although I applaud any efforts to fight against discriminatory and pejorative terms which are used against women (well, I oppose discrimination. Period. But women generally experience it more than men), I read this Time magazine article earlier today which suggests that we should own bossy, not ban it.

    Quote: “There is nothing inherently wrong with being bossy, but the Ban Bossy campaign is telling girls that there is: bossy is just another thing that women should not be, right alongside outspoken and opinionated and tough”

    There is a lot to be said on this issue and I don’t think I’ve fully made my own mind up about Sheryl Sandberg. I really must read her book and mull it over when I get enough free time to do so!

  7. Caitlin, as some of your commentators hint at: There is a difference between being ‘bossy’ and being ‘assertive’.

    My siblings, all three of them a lot younger than me, used to complain to my mother (insert smiley) that I was ‘bossy’. What? Would they have preferred boot camp to keep them in line, protect them?

    I have had the good fortune to work with many women in positions superior to mine. My bosses. They didn’t have to ‘boss’ the guys in a largely male dominated industry. They used that mixture of confidence in themselves, judicious judgment and an awful lot of charm complete with stilettos to pull it off.


  8. Pingback: Five Things Friday – Food, Food, Females, and Self-Igniting Flames! | Running Around the Bend

  9. Well, I went in my forties to do an MA in Anthropology to England and lived in a mixed residence. One ‘local’ young guy complained loudly that I behaved as if I “owned the place” and some of them made my life miserable, but secretly that remark gave me immense pride, coming as I do from a ‘Third World Country’.

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