No really, bossy is gendered.

My post on the gendered use of the word bossy has gotten a lot of attention in the past week. In it, I presented a modest bit of data to support Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign attempting to raise awareness of the obstacles that hinder young girls from developing leadership skills. Writing for The New Republic, Alice Robb used my own and other linguists’ data to argue that usage of the word bossy is gendered.

However, Sandberg’s campaign has had many detractors, and thus so did Robb’s article. As a result, the legitimacy of my own and others’ arguments about language has been questioned by Sandberg’s critics. For example, writing for Reason, Cathy Young questioned the entire campaign around bossy suggesting that it was designed to address “a fictional problem”.

Young dismisses the language data that I and others have presented supporting the gendered nature of the word itself, stating that “text searches can yield complex and contradictory results.” I would partially agree with that statement. Yes, text searches can lead to contradictory findings. In particular, they reveal the diversity of actual language usage. However, as I’ll demonstrate below, in this case, the contradiction is largely a product of Young’s use of unprincipled methods for studying language that make it appear that there is more contradiction in the data than there is. It’s also true that interpreting the results of textual analyses can be a complex endeavor, yet, in this case, the complexity of language use does not prevent us from making cogent claims about differential treatment of men and women.

First, allow me to explain why the results are not contradictory even though some writers like Young have tried to make it appear that my and others’ findings are more “selective” than they really are. Young contradicts our findings by picking several different phrases to search through Google’s search engine and stating that these show that bossy was used more for men and boys than for women and girls, which would contradict my and other linguists’ findings. I replicated Young’s results and present them in the table below.

Table 1: Cathy Young’s analysis of bossy using Google
Male phrases # of results Female phrases # of results
he is bossy 227000 she is bossy 151000
he is too bossy 127000 she is too bossy 117000
bossy little boy 187000 bossy little girl 93900
my brother is bossy 11700 my sister is bossy 20000
my son is bossy 808 my daughter is bossy 37400
Young’s total 553508 Young’s total 419300

Young’s analysis would suggest that actually bossy is used slightly more frequently for men and boys than for women and girls, which is the opposite of what researchers, including myself, have reported. However, any good researcher would ask Young the following question: “Why have you restricted the analysis to these particular phrases?” In effect, Young’s analysis appears to be nothing more than an exercise in hunting down the data that would fit her preconceived conclusion. If we expand her data set to include similar but absent phrases we find a quite strikingly different result as in my table below that shows my expansion on Young’s Google search technique.

Table 2: My further analysis of bossy using Google
Male phrases # of results Female phrases # of results
bossy boy 7000 bossy girl 419000
bossy boys 6890 bossy girls 203000
bossy man 11000 bossy woman 53400
bossy men 8160 bossy women 42800
he’s bossy 36800 she’s bossy 31400
he was bossy 198000 she was bossy 454000
he’s being bossy 60700 she’s being bossy 93000
he is very bossy 414000 she is very bossy 102000
he is extremely bossy 5770 she is extremely bossy 31300
he is super bossy 1660 she is super bossy 6970
boys are bossy 3760 girls are bossy 53300
men are bossy 7680 women are bossy 107000
My total 761420 My total 1597170
Combined totals 1314928 Combined totals 2016470

Expanding on Young’s analysis, I arrive at the finding that bossy is used for women and girls about one and a half times as frequently as it is for men and boys. At this point, it would be understandable if readers thought to themselves “well you could always add more and different phrases and perhaps arrive at a new conclusion, so this whole process of text analysis is fraught with problems”. That conclusion would be correct if all attempts at text analysis were as methodologically flawed as Young’s.

However, the techniques used by linguists such as myself to study this topic are quite different from what Young did. They are designed to address the problems related to researchers selecting the data that confirms their pre-conceived conclusion (or “cherry-picking” as we call it) by being as inclusive about what is included in the data as possible and not arbitrarily restricting it as Young has done.

The first technique is to rely on more flexible approaches to searching. For example, Alon Lischinsky (Lecturer in Media and Culture Studies at Oxford Brookes University) used Google books Ngram viewer to show that the ten nouns that occur most frequently after the word bossy include four nouns referring to women (woman, women, wife, mother) and no nouns referring solely to men, as you can see in the graph below (or by clicking here). This approach compares a seemingly infinite number of different phrases including bossy men, bossy women, bossy girls, and bossy refrigerators to arrive at the most frequent of them all and thus avoids the selectiveness of only arbitrarily selecting a few phrases taken from a seemingly infinite number of possibilities.

google_ngrams_bossy_collocates_linguisticpulse

Another possible approach is to use a concept known as collocation. This approach asks the somewhat complex question of which words tend to occur around bossy (x number of spaces to the left or to the right) at a rate that is higher than these same words occur elsewhere? I employed this approach using the US sub-section of the Corpus of Global Web-based English. The words that collocate with bossy in this corpus are presented in the table below ranked according to a statistic that calculates the word’s tendency to occur in the vicinity of bossy (the mutual information score). They include the female-gendered words sister, she, and her but no male-gendered words. This approach captures and aggregates across an even greater number of possible phrases than the previous approach because it allows for such diversity in phrases as these two, which occurred in the data:

  • … older sister can be quite bossy. She’s the middle child. I’m…
  • …the younger sister with a bossy older sister who I adore…

The diversity of phrases captured through collocation then is much greater than in the approach used by Young.

Table 3: Collocates of bossy
Rank Word Mutual Information
1 coworker 9.78
2 controlling 7.53
3 loud 6.19
4 sister 6.19
5 baby 4.60
6 quite 3.19
7 she 3.06
8 her 2.48
9 feel 2.27
10 being 2.03

Finally, the most flexible approach is one that is much more labor intensive. It involves gathering a random sample of instances of bossy and then simply reading through all of them with our own eyes to determine who is being labelled bossy. This is the approach I took in my recent blog post. Because of the amount of time involved, I looked at far fewer examples than any of the approaches I’ve discussed, but I also was able to classify instances that the above approaches would have missed. The graph below illustrates what I found, namely that bossy was applied to women and girls three times more frequently than it was to men and boys.

bossy_linguisticpulse

You might think to yourself, “But there’s only 101 examples! That’s so few!” It’s true that this is far fewer than normally done in automated textual analyses. However, consider this. If we assume that other linguists and I are mistaken and that the word is not used in a gendered fashion, then what is the likelihood that I would have found the large difference that I did in a random sample of bossy occurrences? This is easily calculable, and it happens to be less than .01% (for the statisticians in the crowd, chi-square = 24,02, p<.0001). That means that if we assume, for the purpose of argument, that Cathy Young is correct and the word is not used in a gendered fashion, then the data I found in the Corpus of Contemporary American English has to be for whatever reason extremely uncharacteristic of the way the word is generally used. Given that I am working with a random sample from a well-constructed corpus of language use, I’m personally going to place my confidence in the idea that Cathy Young is wrong.

All three of these approaches provide the flexibility necessary to search across different contexts of usage to arrive at a principled analysis, and they all point to the same conclusion: bossy is used more frequently to describe women and girls than men and boys. As a result, the contradictions in the data that Young alludes to, while curious in that they suggest phrases that buck the trend (and if anyone wanted to explore this further, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments), are nonetheless a relic of her own flawed attempts at textual research and do not generalize to the broader picture of the way bossy is used. When we avoid cherry-picking the data, the findings are clear, and they support Sandberg’s and others’ contentions that bossy is gendered.

Another issue Young and others have raised is that how the word is used is more complex than can be revealed through textual analysis. That textual analysis is complex is made evident by the numerous questions in the comments of my previous post on this topic about whether I looked at other aspects of usage for the term (I regret to say the answer to all of your questions is “No I didn’t look at that, interesting as it is, but I’d be happy to look at your findings on the subject”).

Young’s claim about the complexity of this enterprise, however, exaggerates the degree to which this complexity prevents us from drawing well-supported claims about the gendered nature of bossy. In particular, she claims that two of the examples that I provide in my blog post are “positive” or “neutral” and thus cannot possibly point to a problem for women and girls. For example, I found this use of bossy in my data: “It seems like we [men] hate it when you’re [women are] bossy, but really, we only hate it when you boss us around.” The writer goes on to describe women’s bossiness as “totally hot” when directed at others. There is complexity here, namely what to do about an occurrence of bossy that is framed by the original writer in a partially complimentary fashion. In other words, women’s bossiness when directed at others is apparently “totally hot”, which could be a desirable thing. However, this confuses the issue. The claim that linguists such as myself are making is that the word is gendered, in other words that it is applied disproportionately to one gender (in this case, women and girls), not that it is universally used in a fashion that is intended by the speaker or writer (at least consciously) to be disparaging.

However, this raises the question of whether this comment ostensibly intended as a compliment is still itself part of a larger problem. To take another common example, we might find that women’s physical appearance is more likely to be commented on than men’s. Although these comments may very frequently be intended as positive or complimentary, they still point to different societal treatment for men and women. Specifically, these compliments, as good as they make some people feel, may reflect different expectations about how women should dress or look or problematic prioritization of women’s physical appearance over their other traits. Likewise, if people comment on women’s “bossiness” more than men’s, even if it is sometimes done in an apparently positive fashion (for example, when Tina Fey defiantly uses the term Bossypants as the title of her book), it still suggests the presence of different treatment for different groups of people.

Since feminism aims to bring about equality in the political, economic, and societal treatment of men and women, from the point of view of feminists such as myself, the gendered nature of the term’s use in society is an indication of a problem. Of course, the frequency counts and statistics I’ve presented here say nothing about the moral goodness or political expediency of a campaign against bossy or any other gendered language; they only show the observed tendency of the term to be used more frequently for women and girls than for men and boys.

Whether or not we choose to think that the gendered usage of bossy is a problem and the amount of attention we feel it deserves are two questions that cannot be directly addressed by this data or really any empirical observation. For this, we have to turn to our political or moral beliefs. In this case, I interpret this gendered use of language as a problem drawing on the perspectives of feminism and anti-sexism. Specifically, because I believe in equal treatment for men and women (as advocated for by feminism), I interpret the different treatment revealed in the gendered usage of bossy as a problem. You could, of course, approach the data making sexist assumptions about the world, such as the idea that women are inherently more bossy than men or the belief that women should have less of a right to be bossy than men. There are countless issues with such assumptions, not the least of which is that they are sexist. There are also empirical problems as well. For example, how is it possible that women could be both more likely to “be bossy” and yet more likely to have less economic and political power than men? In addition, what evidence is there to support this idea other than people’s anecdotes? Furthermore, if for the sake of argument we were going to take this suggestion seriously, how would we define bossy in an objective manner that gets away from its highly subjective but ubiquitous usage which boils down to something like this: “a characteristic of someone exerting authority that we resent”?

Defining the nature, scope, and urgency of the problem of gendered language as well as what should be done about it are of course other issues. It has been repeatedly pointed out that “banning” the word (in the sense of a prescribed social avoidance of the word as opposed to governmental censorship, since no one is advocating that) alone is unlikely to be a good solution. Robin Lakoff (Professor of Linguistics at UC Berkeley), for example, notes that even if somehow we were successful at ridding ourselves of the word bossy (which is quite unlikely to begin with), there are numerous words like aggressive just waiting to fill the functional void left by bossy. Social policing of language alone is insufficient to bring about the types of changes that Sandberg, myself, and numerous others desire. Nonetheless, it is valuable to think about the language we use as it reflects the societal and political norms that govern our behavior and structure our society. The gendered usage of bossy thus is not itself the problem but rather a symptom of society’s differential treatment of women, a problem worth solving. Drawing attention to the word is merely one way of pointing to a problem that has proven to be difficult to wrap our heads around.

Update (9 April 2014)

In response to Lesley Jeffries’ comment below (pointing out that men tend to be overrepresented in corpora), I have gathered some data that demonstrates this point in a new post. This means that some approaches to looking at the gendered nature of bossy underestimate the tendency to which it is applied mainly to women and girls. Specifically, because men and boys are referenced more in corpora, we would expect a greater number of instances where bossy applied to men and boys. Since we find the reverse, this is further evidence that bossy is gendered.

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Posted in Language and gender, Language, ideology, and social change
26 comments on “No really, bossy is gendered.
  1. Alastair Somerville says:

    What happens if negative phrases are added ‘isn’t bossy’, etc.

    I’d guess it won’t affect gendering but just wondering if there are attprs being made to balance language use.

  2. Lesley Jeffries says:

    Great blog! A useful summary of the importance of rigour in research. One argument that you didn’t even use is that women are usually less mentioned in corpora than men, so the comparative stats would probably be even more significant if you ask the question ‘how likely is it that any female term will be collocated with bossy?’.

  3. Alastair, it would be interesting to know how much negation there really is, but negation’s role would not be to un-gender the word as you have pointed out. Even if “she’s not bossy” is a very common phrase it calls into question why people would feel the need to say this, either they are refuting other people’s claims that a woman/girl is bossy or they’re trying to battle stereotypes they sense exist.

  4. Lesley, great point, just to illustrate what you’re saying: the word “he” shows up in the Corpus of Contemporary American English 3,304,537 times, while “she” is present at a shockingly lower rate: only 1,703,886 times. If this trend holds across other terms (which I imagine it does), then my estimate that women/girls are labelled “bossy” 3 times more frequently than men/boys in COCA actually underestimates the degree to which the term is gendered. As you point out the most relevant question is something like how likely are women/girls to be labelled “bossy” relative to men/boys and the answer seems to be even greater than three times as likely. The only approach I mentioned above, for which this is not an issue, is the collocation estimate that I provided which controls for the overall frequency of words in the corpus. Do you happen to know of any larger scale studies that illustrate the bias toward men/boys in corpora that I could link to in order to illustrate this issue?

  5. Great work. Two points:

    1. I would add that Google Search result counts are notoriously unreliable and sometimes contradictory by huge factors. So any generalizations based on them are fatally flawed other than interesting curiosities.

    2. The other point I’d add is that the notion of semantic prosody might be helpful. I think the prosody of ‘bossy’ is undeniably gendered. But it may be gendered in more subtle ways. There are contexts where the word bossy is more neutral. Like this article: http://www.wikihow.com/Stop-Being-Bossy which uses a picture of a man to illustrate its points. However, it is in our collective choices that the preponderance of uses is with female subjects. I can therefore understand why some people would feel object strongly to the characterization.

  6. Dominik,

    Thanks for your comment here.

    I have a vague sense that Google’s search engines ‘adjust’ results for relevance, but do you know of anything we could point people to to convince them that Google’s search engine is not a terribly good choice as a corpus?

  7. Chandra says:

    Nic, Language Log quite often discusses the unreliability of Google search results. I can’t seem to find the main article that discusses the reasons why, but here’s one where they mention it: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=10998

  8. Mr Peeved says:

    Research by Roy Baumeister points out that men are more aggressive outside of the home and women more aggressve inside the home. Considering most relationships are encountered inside the home most of the time, men would see women’s bossy side most of the time. I couldn’t find a link to this study but I did to one that studied women’s agression in the workplace that points out that women’s aggression comes in many forms, such as social exclusion etc. See link. http://www.scientificjournals.org/journals2007/articles/1070.htm

  9. Oh great thanks Chandra. I’ll take a look at these and other Language Log posts on the topic.

  10. Mr Peeved, I find the claim that “most relationships are encountered inside the home most of the time” rather dubious. For anyone who works, goes to school, or routinely uses the internet or engages in some other form of communication or community engagement outside the home, they interact with most of the people they have relationships with outside of the home. Of course, some of the more long-lasting relationships involving frequent interactions will be in the home, but even this isn’t true for many many people. Regardless though, no one is claiming that women do not exert authority, the point is that when they do, they are assigned a label “bossy” that men are not.

  11. Mr Peeved says:

    I was referring to romantic relationships not interactions with others, but I guess if a couple is not living together……… It is also well researched that women far more than men manipulate and try to control social interactions. To me bossy is more than just trying to be authoratative. Being controlling, even if not overtly is still a form of coercian,and therefore bossy. School girls are very adapt in bullying in forms that are not easily detected. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1467-9507.00083/abstract;jsessionid=3D8C186AF51D5D4704414532A4A57B2C.f02t04?deniedAccessCustomisedMessage=&userIsAuthenticated=false

  12. Mr Peeved,

    I don’t agree that it’s well researched that women “manipulate and try to control social interactions” more than men do for several reasons. I base this on my understanding of the sociolinguistics literature looking at cross-gender interactions (so if you have some other relevant literature perhaps you can point me to it). Most important of my objections, however, is the ideological loadedness of this characterization especially in the term “manipulate”. Certainly research has suggested that women demonstrate certain discursive norms that differ from men’s (even this research, however, often does not include women from all backgrounds but focuses specifically on white middle class women). For example, women have often been found to ask more questions of men than vice-versa. However, it is an act of ascribing intentions to what women do in interaction that leads to the claim that they are “manipulative”. We could just as easily ascribe alternative intentions to them, however. For example, rather than trying to manipulate others, we could say that women are utilizing means of controlling situations covertly while men who in many relationships are in a position of higher status are able to do so more overtly.

    One last point: The source you provide is an interesting in that it points out alternative ways of enacting the notion of “bullying”, but I question whether these forms of bullying which the authors claim to be more prevalent among girls is really what is being referred to when the word “bossy” is used. I would say that there are other gendered terms for these practices. “Bitch” comes to mind.

  13. […] His initial search yielded about 400 results. And after removing outliers (like a man named Mike Bossy), 101 examples remained — an acceptable, albeit small, sample size. He found that “bossy” describes women and girls three times as often as men and boys, shown in the graph below. (You can read Subtirelu’s full post here.) […]

  14. Chandra says:

    Mr Peeved, all the common definitions of “bossy” that I can find (as well as my own instincts about how it’s used) indicate overt authoritarianism, giving orders, brashness, etc. It is not a word commonly used to refer to subtly manipulative or passive-aggressive behaviours.

    And in any case, the very point is that when women display overt authority, they are labelled “bossy” far more than when men do, not when they display behaviour already considered typical of their gender (such as subtle manipulation). Perhaps, IF there is any truth to the stereotype of the socially manipulative woman, it is precisely because she knows she will be labelled “bossy” if she attempts more direct control.

  15. Thank you for articulating that better than I did Chandra.

  16. […] His initial search yielded about 400 results. And after removing outliers (like a man named Mike Bossy), 101 examples remained — an acceptable, albeit small, sample size. He found that “bossy” describes women and girls three times as often as men and boys, shown in the graph below. (You can read Subtirelu’s full post here.) […]

  17. Mr Peeved says:

    I am not disputing that the term is not gendered, I do agree with your premise. I understand it refers to leadership roles. But to me it asks other questions though, like why? Are women actually more bossy? Have they turned bossy in reaction to men’s bossiness? Are men actually more bossy? I think there are different situations in which men are more bossy and vice versa and depending in which environment you spend the most time in will determine your view. I think there is a bigger picture that determines how we view and label people. This is where Sociology comes in.

    Hanna Rosin in her book ‘The End of Men’ on page 64 refers to Sociologist Kathryn Edin who spent 5 years talking to mothers in the inner Philadelphia area and noted that the women were making all of the decisions “…and dictating what the men should and should not do” and that feminists have been blind to how much power women have when not bound by marriage. “…they make every important decision….It’s definitely my way or the highway.”

    The above is referring to family life of the poorer classes, and so is a particular environment not relevant to all families of course. This does not actually mean women are more bossy, but a deeper investigation is required. But yes, I agree, women get labled in ways men don’t in similar situations, and no doubt vice versa.

  18. Mr Peeved,
    In reading what you are saying (this and your other comments), I interpret the fact that you are bringing these things up here (apparently as counterpoints to bossy) and the way that you are interpreting them, as implying something along the lines of this: Men and women face similar or equal challenges to their social, economic, and political advancement and well-being, which only differ in surface level features, e.g., “bossy” is a label for women that serves as an obstacle but men have similar labels that similarly keep them down.
    Is this your position?

  19. Mr Peeved says:

    No, gender does place unequal challenges upon us. I am simply saying that there is the possibility, only the possibility, that women are actually more bossy. I think this is certainly true in particular environments. Whether we are conscious of it or not, affects how we label people. This labeling may spill over from one environment to another based on our predominate environmental exposure.

    Despite research that shows female leadership to have more accommodative strategies, I don’t think anecdotal evidence is totally dismissable. Here in Australia it doesn’t take much of a survey whip around to discover so many women who prefer male bosses in the corporate world, due to leadership personalities.

    Your linguistic analysis is fascinating, and correct. There is also the question of why things are the way they are.

  20. Mr Peeved, Thanks for making that clear for me. Appreciate your thoughts. I would caution, however, that we avoid taking people’s perceptions as evidence of anything other than just that, their perceptions. I wouldn’t dismiss the surveys showing women prefer men as leaders outright (I’ve seen them too), but I would interpret them as perception neither an objective judgment of women’s behavior nor even necessarily an accurate reflection of what women actually do differently from men (as stereotypes tend to make us notice behaviors that conform our stereotypes and not notice others, and of course women have the same stereotypes about other women; we’re not talking just about men’s ideas here!). We could try to determine what women do differently than men, but we also need to be careful that we don’t simply take the perceptions that others have of these behaviors and apply their labels uncritically, labeling any differences we find “bossy” (or at least not without problematizing the word first). So if you or I or anyone else wanted to try to do this research, I’d say we’d also need to ask the women who were observed doing these things (things perceived as “bossy”) why they did them. We may find as you suggested in a previous comment that they do them because of feelings of powerlessness or the sense that their authority is challenged.

  21. Datafiend says:

    Reblogged this on Austen, Morgan and Me and commented:
    Really detailed research showing the importance of solid methodology

  22. […] one thing she hasn’t: a man in charge is called a leader, a woman in charge is called bossy. Bossy is definitely a gendered word, but that is hardly good reason to sound the feminist alarm. Gendered language alone does not prove […]

  23. […] and having read both Cathy Young’s criticism of the campaign and Subtirelu’s subsequent response, I’m inclined to think that the latter’s expansions on Young’s findings and the […]

  24. […] the aftermath of the “Ban Bossy” campaign, Subtirelu ran the same analysis with “bossy” and found a similar phenomenon—it was used for women and girls about one and a half […]

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