I find it ironic that the goal of international development is to bring “Lesser Developed Countries” (LDCs) to the level of “Developed Countries.” Assuming that we were able to bring everyone to the standard of living and basic rights of the average American, do we really want other countries to mimic our economy? For women’s sake, maybe not.

Take this statistic from a recent Wall Street Journal article: “Despite earning the majority of college degrees, women make up just 19% of the U.S. Congress, 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs… Most leadership positions are held by men, so society continues to expect leadership to look and act male and to react negatively when women lead.” You read that correctly. Women make up 5% of Fortune 500 CEOs. And it doesn’t stop there. The gender pay gap for 25 EU countries, for example, is around 25% (Plantenga and Remery 2006). That is, women in the European Union in 2006 were earning nearly 25% less than men doing the same jobs. From an economic perspective, this is inefficient. While there are thousands of articles relating the details of the gender pay gap, and perhaps what it explains it (hourly wages worked, the jobs worked), the fact still remains that women are often rendered invisible, even in our idealized “developed” economies.

Why is that?

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, recently started a campaign through her Lean In Movement, Ban Bossy. She would probably argue that women aren’t in leadership because when they do act like leaders, they get called bossy. In one of the campaign’s videos, Beyonce, Jennifer Garner, and Condoleezza Rice join together in explaining that by middle school girls already have less interest in leadership for fear of being labeled as “bossy.” With their new website,,  hashtag #banbossy, and partnership with the Girl Scouts, the group has their campaign geared toward ending gender bias in schools and in the work place. Not everyone, however, agrees that banning the word bossy is the best way to do so.

Aren’t the bossy girls the ones who end up in leadership? Bossy men often do, but why don’t they get called bossy? Does being a leader and a woman automatically define a female CEO or Congressional representative as, bossy? What if the problem isn’t being called bossy, but a society in which leaders self-select because a certain level of “bossiness” is required to become a leader? That traits considered masculine are sought after in leadership? The kind of women who do make it to the top, like Sonia Sotomayor, Madeline Allbright, Indira Gandhi, Anna Wintour, Angela Merkel, to name a few, are often portrayed as females that lack femininity (see this Time article) and who are bossy.

Lisa Belkin wrote “The Feminine Critique” in which she found that the research by Catalyst, an organization that studies women in the workplace, shows that women don’t excel as much in the workplace because they don’t act like men.

Most recent is the report titled “Damned if You Do, Doomed if You Don’t,” which surveyed 1,231 senior executives from the United States and Europe. It found that women who act in ways that are consistent with gender stereotypes — defined as focusing “on work relationships” and expressing “concern for other people’s perspectives” — are considered less competent. But if they act in ways that are seen as more “male” — like “act assertively, focus on work task, display ambition” — they are seen as “too tough” and “unfeminine” (The Feminine Critique – New York Times)

Women in the developed world workplace are invisible if they are being “feminine” and too visible if they adopt “masculine’ work-place attitudes. Margaret Thatcher is an interesting case study in this because while she represented women as the first and only Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, she, too, was recognized as competent because of her more “masculine” associated leadership qualities. Her nickname, after all, was “the Iron Lady.”


The examples could go on. and on. and on. Many women leaders are measured not by their policies but by how society defines their femininity. Some people can’t get over Hillary Clinton’s wide ankles. Others focus not on former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s policies but her childlessness, large thighs and that one time when she apparently showed too much cleavage. Yes, people in the public eye are bound to be criticized. But do we see people commenting on David Cameron’s ankles? It’s absurd. Especially when women as leaders have a different and important perspective to add to policy dialogue.

Consider Nigeria. The watchdog group Transparency International ranked it as the most corrupt country in the world in 2003. But that year, Ngozi Okonjo-Iwela left her job as a vice president at the World Bank to become the country’s finance minister, and by 2005 Transparency International was hailing Nigeria as one of 21 most improved states…Women are more likely to adopt a broad definition of security that includes key social and economic issues that would otherwise be ignored, such as safe food and clean water and protection from gender-based violence (Hunt 2007).

Perhaps a better movement to #banbossy could attack the root of the problem and combat misperceptions about the roles of women – it’s not about how women don’t want to be called bossy (who does, really?) – it’s that they are often not taken seriously as leaders. It’s almost as if society is stuck judging women as they used to be measured before they had the right to vote or own property.

When considering how LDCs might develop, I think we need to pay attention to gender culture and the visibility of women. Instead of worrying about how bossy or pretty women leaders are, we might learn what they can contribute. From economics to international politics, major information gaps would be filled, not taking away men’s voice but finally having women’s join beside it, to better lead us through the every-day workings of our co-ed world.

by MLW

Belkin, Lisa. “The Feminine Critique – New York Times,”, 2007. Web. 14 Mar 2014. <;

Plantenga, Janneke, and Chantal Remery. “The gender pay gap. Origins and policy responses. A comparative review of thirty European countries,” Equality Unit, European Union, Expert Group on Gender, Social Inclusion and Employment, 2006, 4.

Hunt, Swanee. “Let Women Rule,” Foreign Affairs, no. May/June (2007): 2,

One thought on “Bossy

  1. CHB (@sidewalk_trees) says:

    Great post! In leadership positions I have held, often I have come off as aggressive/rude not in the way I lead, but the way I deal with unneeded or obvious instruction from men (which is not a common situation for male leaders, but if it were I’m sure they would deal with it like I do and receive less criticism).

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