Some data to support the gendered nature of “bossy”

Recently, public figures like Sheryl Sandberg and Ariana Huffington have been calling attention to the labeling of young girls’ behaviors and particularly how the labels are often differently applied to young girls but not young boys.

In particular the word bossy is one that these women and others have pointed to as particularly gendered (that is applied differently to people of different genders), leading them to call for a ban on applying the word bossy to young girls. Their reasoning seems sound. If we do in fact use this label more for the actions of young girls than for young boys it would seem that we are socializing young girls out of behaviors that may one day help them be leaders, implicitly telling them “you’re not allowed to lead”. 

It certainly was my sense as well that young girls are labelled bossy more than young boys. Indeed my own prototypical understanding of bossy is of a young girl telling her friends what to do. I’ve noticed the usage in things like children’s book, such as the character “Little Miss Bossy” pictured above.

However, as a linguist, I knew there was a tool that would allow me to provide a more data-driven approach to this question. I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) to see to whom the word was applied most frequently, specifically to people of which gender. COCA is a large collection of language data (over 450 million words) gathered from different sources: television, newspapers, academic writing, fiction, and magazines from the years 1990 until 2012.  I searched for bossy used as an adjective (to try to screen out, for example, Bossy the last name). I then took a random sample of 101 occurrences (the final number that resulted after several were eliminated as errors or as not clearly specifying one or the other gender) from the resulting 400 hits. I proceeded to read through and determine the gender and the relative age (young person or adult) of the person being referred to as bossy in each example. My results are presented in the plot below.

bossy_linguisticpulse

The results are perhaps quite unsurprising to most people, especially women. In my sample, bossy was used nearly three times as frequently for women and girls as it was for men and boys. I found no evidence to suggest that this trend is specifically related to young girls as adult women were labelled bossy at nearly the same rate relative to men as girls were to boys. I would caution against comparing the amount of adults versus young people because the contents of COCA are skewed toward texts created by adults usually for adults. Although children make an appearance quite often, much of what is discussed is targeted at an adult audience.

You might be interested in some of the actual instances of bossy that I observed. One interesting tendency that I observed a couple of times was for parenting magazines to discuss undesirable bossy behavior in children as if it occurred primarily from young girls as in the following examples.

Example 1

But sparks can fly when an overzealous child becomes bossy with her playmates

Example 2

Understanding your preschooler’s temperament can help ease some of the negative feelings you’re having right now. But it won’t always be easy to be rational in the face of full-blown defiance. You’ll need to remind yourselfoften-that underneath the diminutive despot is the adorable, sweet child you used to know. Carrying around a smiling picture of her that you can glance at during those bossy interludes will help. So will remembering that even as your little chick tries to rule the roost, you’re still the boss, because you’re the parent.

Men were also engaged in labeling their wives and female romantic interests bossy as in this example:

Example 3

I present a list of the things we men really love about our wives, created from the weepy declarations, tipsy ramblings, and uncomfortable announcements I culled from my “Focus Group of Manliness.” WE LOVE IT WHEN YOU TAKE CONTROL. It might seem like we hate it when you’re bossy, but really, we only hate it when you boss us around. When you get badass with other people, it’s totally hot.

I also noticed the tendency for bossy to show up when other ‘unfeminine’ behaviors were being discussed as in this example where the girl is described as a tomboy and a jock in addition to being bossy

Example 4

I have two sisters, one older and one younger than I am. The older one, Amy, was bossy and a tomboy and quite a jock in grade school and high school. She was the captain of her high-school girls’ basketball team by the time she was seventeen, and she got a full athletic scholarship to Wisconsin, though after her sophomore year she dropped all that. She went grunge for a while. She learned a few power chords on a bass guitar and helped form a girl group called Handcuff.

Some people might be tempted to interpret these examples as indicating that young girls and women try to exert control over others (in other words, engage in being the boss or being bossy) more frequently than men and young boys. This seems a strange interpretation given a reality in which men are over-represented in positions of power and thus must be responsible for quite a large share of the bossiness in the world. It seems a more fitting interpretation is that women’s engaging in the same behaviors that men do is seen as a violation of gender roles and responded to with social sanctions in ways men are shielded from (a phenomenon I touched on in a past post). This is precisely what Sandberg and Huffington are claiming as well.

I do think Sandberg, Huffington, and others are right to be concerned about the language we use. However, I do wonder whether calling for a ban on the word is the right approach (although to be fair they may just be using purposefully hyperbolic language). This seems to me to confuse the issue. If we dislike authoritiarian behaviors and wish to call them bossy, then we should dislike them and call them out regardless of the gender of the person issuing the commands. It seems then that we need to reflect more critically on why we use bossy for one gender to a much greater degree rather than avoiding the term outright, which perhaps is a useful term for behaviors we dislike in others we perceive as our equals. Of course, this leads us into bigger questions about who we see as authority-worthy, and we should be willing to see women as equally worthy of holding positions of authority. I suspect, however, that this is ultimately the conversation Sandberg and others want us to have all along, in which case, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts on the term and ways to respond to it in the comments below.

Updates (15 March 2014): 

A few notable things have happened since I first posted this:

  • Two prominent sociolinguists who study language and gender have written pieces about bossy: Robin Lakoff in the Huffington Post and Deborah Tannen in USA Today. I highly recommend reading their thoughts on the topic.
  • Commenting on this post, Alon Lischinsky provided an additional illustration of how bossy is gendered using data from Google Books. The graph shows the nouns that occur with bossy most frequently including notably woman, women, wife and mother (yet no words referring exclusively to men).

google_ngrams_bossy_collocates_linguisticpulse

 

Updates (28 March 2014): 

After this post was cited by Alice Robb writing for The New Republic, there has been at least one major critic of the piece, Cathy Young writing for Reason, who criticizes the analysis that this work is based on. I’ve responded to her criticisms in a follow-up to this post.

 

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Posted in Language and gender, Language, ideology, and social change
43 comments on “Some data to support the gendered nature of “bossy”
  1. Alon Lischinsky says:

    The much larger dataset in Google Books clearly supports this picture: of the nouns that collocate immediately to the right of ‘bossy’, four of the top ten are specifically marked for female gender, while the other six are inanimate or non-gendered.

  2. Oh yes that’s a fantastic illustration of this point. I like also that it provides a historical perspective, suggesting that the usage is not diminishing with time (at least not up to 2000). Thanks for sharing this!

  3. As a feminist I believe men have deliberately and successfully bossed women about for centuries to create a ‘patriarchy’ which benefits men at the expense of women. Patriarchy theory defines all men as sociopaths (the epitome bossiness), and I am happy to promote that view of men.

    As a feminist I teach my son that he is a potential rapist by virtue of being born a man and that he needs to work hard to overcome this genetic tendency, and I teach my daughter that she is a victim and a fragile flower at the mercy of rapey men and that she must live in fear of/ hatred towards men for the rest of her life.

    When I’m not actively forcing my feminist ideology onto everyone around me I like to shame men who dare to refer to bossy women as ‘bossy’.

  4. I might imagine that it comes up more often with women because women exhibit the behavior more frequently. I associate the meaning of ‘bossy’ to be someone who tries to control other people, rather than someone who leads other people. The authoritarian versus the authoritative, perhaps. The only person who stands out in my mind as truly ‘bossy’ was, yes, a girl – but she wanted to run the show with no input from others. Anyone else’s opinion was automatically wrong. That’s not leadership. And when I, as a small child, was called bossy by my mother, it’s because when I played imagining games with my brother, I never let him lead the storyline or do any pretending I didn’t want him to do. Again, that’s not leadership or cooperative playing – that’s a dictatorship. And that is wrong.
    There certainly are bossy men, the unrelenting, controlling fathers, for example. And they should be called out on it. But maybe ‘bossy’ behavior isn’t distributed between men and women equally.

  5. The two most eye-opening classes of my life were high school statistics and a course I took in college called “Men, Women, and Language.” Both taught me to really pay attention and look beneath the surface of the “facts” to see what was actually going on. After statistics, I never paid attention to another television commercial (4 out of 5 dentists? That could mean they only talked to 5 dentists). After the language class, I realized commercials weren’t the only thing handing us a line.

    The pivotal moment came when our English professor ran a brainstorming session and chalked our ideas down up on the blackboard. There were two columns, one for men and one for women. We were to come up with as many derogatory words, phrases, and names that we could think of that applied to each, disgusting as we wanted, no holds barred. In less than five minutes, it was clear this was one race women weren’t enjoying winning.

    You made me stop and think today, “Have I ever heard the word bossy used in reference to a man?” No, never. In fact, the word feels feminine because that’s how it’s used, like the way “dude” feels masculine. You COULD use either word to address either gender but that’s not the case in practice. The only time I could imagine a man calling another man bossy is as part of a jest that questions his masculinity: “Well, aren’t we a little bossy pants today. Your time of the month or what?”

    I almost never use the word, and only in writing, so my plan is to stop using it altogether. Grass roots movement: retire “bossy.” Hello, “commanding.”

  6. jumptab says:

    Reblogged this on Helena on Wheels and commented: <3 Yup yup!

  7. lebogar says:

    Reblogged this on Deciphering teens and commented:
    Gender stereotypes affect us throughout life and hurt the most in the workplace. Strides have been made, but there is more road to travel. The most recent discussions have birthed from The book “Lean In”. Read on to discover why “bossy” is the new five letter word.

  8. heybookworm says:

    This is really something to think about. I don’t think it is news to any woman that the authoritative qualities that make for good leaders in men are actively discouraged in women. Perhaps this is the place to start. Eliminating the gendered speech from how we talk to our children (girls in particular) will hopefully make them more resilient to gender-biased speech and behavior when they grow up. As a woman who was frequently called bossy as a girl, I find this movement very interesting. Thank you for the hard numbers!

  9. itsybitsymom says:

    Very interesting and revealing to see this spelled out in this manner. I think my problem with this campaign is that when someone is being bossy they are not actually showing good leadership skills. If we want to empower young women to embrace leadership maybe we should emphasize appropriate ways to do so and explain the difference between being an effective leader and being bossy. I also fear this campaign will take away from very important movements to ban words that only demean – for example the work r-word.org is doing.

  10. jackiemallon says:

    Interestingly enough I have often warned the males in my life about my bossiness in cases where I know it might rear its head–as a sort of warning/apology in advance. In my experience most men place bossy in the same category as nagging and they don’t really want either characteristic in their womenfolk. So I tend to curb my tendency to take charge. But we shouldn’t have to…

  11. Found this post fascinating. Thank you for your research on the topic.

  12. Be Inspired says:

    Great article. Your attention to detail is awesome.

  13. anorrislandry says:

    Did you happen to check on the derivation of “bossy” as referring to a lead, albeit female cow? This was the context I first heard it in and the image that always flashed into my mind first, when I was called this, was that of my grandfather’s main cow and her bellowing when she wanted to be first to milk, food, out, in, etc.

  14. This articulated just how I feel. It isn’t the word so much as how it’s used and to whom it’s being directed at. I’ve noticed that all many young kids(regardless of gender) at a certain points learn to assert themselves. My son’s preschool teacher said he was becoming more of a leader, I’ve found him to be downright dictatorial, or ‘bossy.’ I don’t like his behavior and he will know it, and so will my daughters. There is a way to be a ‘boss’ and lead without being bossy no matter the gender. Thanks for your post!

  15. ksfinblog says:

    Have you seen Vanity Fair. The movie struck me as providing similar kind of vibes………. don’t be an ambitious woman lest you get burned.

  16. Tea_Talks says:

    Reblogged this on Tea Talks and commented:
    A wonderful article and one which made me think. It’s amazing that the term “boss” is often used as masculine noun, although the verb “bossy” is primarily a derogative one, and used primarily in reference to “uppity” females. How did this happen? Should we reclaim the verb, using it to refer to someone who is commanding, or who displays strong leadership skills? Or should we “Ban the Bossy”? Does it also allude to the stereotype of the “boss” who talks a good game, barks instructions but secretly knows nothing and is ineffective. Is this what we secretly think of women as a society. Should we all just know our place?

    One of the comments to this post describes an exercise whereby participants were asked to list the derogatory words used for women and for men. The women came out on top – and not in a good way. It’s interesting that in many work based diversity workshops I’ve attended over the years, we have undertaken similar exercises with other “minority” groups. On reflection, it’s a shame that we don’t stop to do this for women – and I don’t think we challenge language enough, not just from men but from women too – we are all too often our worst enemy.

    Whether you want to ban bossy, reclaim it, or think that it’s not a problem at all, at the least stop and think about the language you use. If you find your lexion of verbs fall into a female or male camp, then there’s something wrong. There are no male or female verbs, there are just verbs.

  17. bobsleigh23 says:

    So true, I never thought of this as being quite a woman exclusive term. I do wonder though how much the gender of the writer also affects this! My partner is quite bossy but I wouldn’t tell him that as I wouldn’t want to offend him or slur his name. It would be interesting to see if this is a personal issue or one that also affects other women in their description of men.

    I’m fully aware that women do call other women bossy but, as the main close relationships, partners, are between men and women the two are more likely to have comments about each other – I’m a firm believer that a relationship doesn’t work without conflict!

    Very good post, thank you!

  18. Everyone gets a little bossy from time to time, with people they work with, their friends, their family, the people they love. The word might sound a little harsh, but even the tamest words can be used to hurt and oppress. I do my best to follow the Golden Rule: “In all things, treat others as you would have them treat you.” It’s Golden. If there are some ladies out there who would prefer me never to refer to females as bossy, I’d be happy to oblige. But you have to admit, that’s pretty bossy of them—whoops. Last time.

  19. Great post! I couldn’t help but write a post about this topic last week. Amazing that this gender bias still exists in 2014.

  20. […] Some data to support the gendered nature of “bossy”. is a great piece looking at the gendered nature of this word. […]

  21. wolfdream88 says:

    Cool post and great analysis.

  22. Say it loud. I’m bossy and proud! It’s a badge of honor.

  23. I love the graphs and data you included in this post. I heard this story about the movement to ban the word “bossy,” and I think it’s great to see data showing how gendered the word truly is. I think this term is thrown around too often at it is used as an insult. The English language is so vast; we should be using words that strengthen women, not put them down.

  24. Reblogged this on Urthtone Designs and commented:
    Bossy is up there with Tomboy another word carrying so much implication that girls tend to give up what they love or who they are.

  25. Ann Kilter says:

    Another word to study might be charm. Although we have prince charming…I wonder ifvthat is also a quality engendered for women.

  26. Arianna Editrix says:

    Ann, my connotation of the word “charm/ing” is strictly male unless applied to a child. Or in a more formal type of usage i.e. “There was a charming presentation at the event.” where it denotes (to me) something small and perhaps trite or an ingenious type of move to get folks to open their pockets.

  27. chelsek says:

    Thank you for the clarity you brought to this subject. Often people confuse being bossy with being aggressive. Aggressiveness is more often attributed to males and is another example of gender bias.

  28. This is a really great blog with facts to back it up. Since the anti-bossy campaign started, I started to think about where I stand with it. As a kid, I always tried to avoid calling girls bossy(even if I thought they were acting that way), because I know it never led to anything good, if you said it, it just lead to them defending themselves or you backing down from what you said or pushing it further, which just escalated the exchange. What I do remember is that girls themselves often had no problem saying it to each other if they thought the other girl was ordering them around too much. Most the boys I knew who used the word bossy would never use the word in front of the girl they were talking about, as it would led to what I said earlier. More often than not they would wait to they were out of earshot of any girl and say something like, “Wow, I can’t believe how bossy she is, did you see her trying to make everyone do that.” I do believe calling young girls bossy is mostly negative, but I think it’s important that parents point out the difference between being bossy and being a leader, because there is a difference. It is possible to lead a group of people without being overbearing and demanding and that should be taught to girls as well as boys.

  29. Reblogged this on girlforgetful and commented:
    I had this conversation with my husband recently. He babysits our grandkids, a boy and a girl, and often refers to our granddaughter as “bossy” (though, more often “sassy” is the word he uses, to mean the same thing). I think this is something we need to correct where our granddaughter is concerned, because to be a part of the sanction of behavior in girls that is encouraged in boys is holding us back as a society and we need to be aware of this. I tagged him on Facebook to this article. I think we can do more to refrain from discouraging her in her development, and all girls and women will benefit from a change in attitude in this matter.

  30. Ann Kilter says:

    I have heard of women described as full of grace and charm. On the other hand, a man who is too charming raises suspicions. One of the marks of an abuser is too much charm.

  31. Did you look at who actually was calling who bossy? Is this a phenomenon where men are calling women bossy or is it women calling women bossy or is it equally distributed between genders?

  32. Hi. This is a really interesting blog about gendered language, something I’m getting quite interested in given the seeming rise of anti-feminist feeling over the past few months. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend checking out Mary Beard on the use of genedered language since Homer. Fascinating stuff!

  33. Jules says:

    Reblogged this on Quirky Juice and commented:
    As a lady (term used loosely) in business, I am constantly “put in my place” when starting to take control and I do wonder if it has to do with gender roles.. This post definitely lends itself to this view.

  34. rqueen03 says:

    I never would have given much to this but it does cross my mind. It was really interesting how the term bossy would have such an effect on feminine ways and the anti feminist. So good.I maybe to harsh
    but its quite sexist when the word is clearly now directed at women.

  35. th3bak3rman says:

    Great piece – I always enjoy reading sociolinguistic studies. Although it has been a while since I’ve read any of her work, I enjoy Deborah Tannen’s studies.

  36. Excellent research, very interesting.

  37. Thanks for an awesome post! I presented my students with an article pertaining to banning the word “bossy” in class yesterday, and they were oblivious to the negative connotations based upon gender connected to the word. We were looking at the article in connection to Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. The students were quick to identify Katherine as bossy, but less so with Petruchio.

  38. […] your pledge to #banbossy on your social media platform of choice. As Nic Subtirelu points out in one of his blog posts on the issue, “They may just be using purposefully hyperbolic language,” not really […]

  39. […] to this article on the topic of bossy being a gendered word, there is linguistic evidence that suggests bossy is a […]

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