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