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How Women Leaders Deal with Labels Like "Bossy"


A woman in a black shirt holding a mug that says "like a boss"

Women in leadership face a lot of challenges that their male counterparts typically don’t have to deal with. One of those challenges is dealing with labels like “bossy,” “aggressive,” or “domineering.” The same actions may be interpreted different ways depending on if they are done by a man or a woman.


For women, these labels start early. Have you ever heard a little boy described as “bossy?” When girls hear these words, they start to consciously or unconsciously hold themselves back out of fear of being called bossy or worse. They’re afraid to take charge or go for leadership positions because they’ve been taught that’s not how girls are supposed to act.


We have all internalized an idea of what a leader is supposed to look like or how they are supposed to act. Women can unconsciously hold themselves back by thinking leaders have to be a certain type of person or behave a certain type of way. While there are certainly traits that all leaders share, a strong leader can come in all shapes and sizes. There is no one-size-fits-all mold of a “good leader.”


Despite that, women are held back from leadership roles because they’re seen as not being assertive enough to lead. They’re perceived as too “soft” or “emotional” - they won’t be able to make the tough decisions leadership requires. And yet, when women do display leadership skills, they’re seen as rude, unlikeable, or aggressive. It seems to be an impossible Catch-22 for women who want to lead.


How can we combat these labels and thrive as women leaders?


Check Yourself


First, it’s important to do a little self-reflection and make sure that you actually aren’t behaving in a bossy or aggressive manner. Ask for feedback from someone you trust won’t sugarcoat things or be too afraid to give you a real answer.


Here are a few tips to keep you from veering too far into the realm of bossy:


Watch your tone Women in the public eye get constantly criticized for their tone. Too soft, too shrill, too emotional. I’m not going to add on to the pile. Instead, I want to offer a gentle reminder to be aware of the tone in which you ask others to do tasks or how you respond to people when you’re in a stressful situation. Don’t just demand others do a task because you’re in charge and be wary of snapping at others if you’re stressed out.


Build respect If your team is built on mutual respect, you won’t be described as bossy. Be open to ideas from others and listen attentively when someone on your team is speaking. You don’t have to necessarily use their ideas every time (or else you're not really the one in charge), but welcome other opinions to diversify your options.


Have empathy

Women are typically thought of as the more empathetic sex, but men can and should have this skill too. Show your team that you care about them. It is absolutely possible to be empathetic and be a strong leader at the same time.


Show the big picture

Your actions are less likely to be perceived as overbearing if you can show your team the big picture. When you ask someone to do a task, explain how it impacts the whole team or organization. They will realize you’re not just bossing them around and feel like their work is more important.


Redefine Leadership


In order to debunk the stereotypes about women in leadership, we need to create a generation of exceptional leaders. Here are a few ways to help you become the type of leader who breaks the mold.


Own your work Women are often afraid they will sound arrogant when talking about their work. But if you don’t toot your own horn a little, no one else will! Accept the compliments. Don’t be self-deprecating or always share the credit. It’s fine to credit where credit is due, but don’t always deflect to say, “It was a team effort” when you did the bulk of the work.


Build other women up

Sometimes, the biggest barrier women leaders face is other women in leadership roles. They may feel threatened or insecure in their own role. For women leaders to succeed, we need to build each other up! Watch for your own biases in action. Mentor younger colleagues, recommend other women for leadership positions, and give women the opportunity to speak up.


Speak up unapologetically

Don’t be afraid to speak up and share your ideas. Don’t apologize for speaking in a meeting or minimize what you’re saying by using phrases like “I just think…” If you need more help with finding your voice, check out our blog post Speaking Up with Confidence.


Teach the next generation

Finally, we need to teach the next generation of girls to become strong leaders. Encourage the young women and girls in your life to go for leadership positions and strengthen their skills. Lead by example and show them that women can be successful leaders!


Hold Your Head Up


Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to hold your head up and let others deal with their biases. If you’re confident and have the self-awareness to know you aren't actually behaving in a bossy way, then boldly go forth and continue to lead.


As Taylor Swift says, "Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate...I'm just gonna shake it off!" Unfortunately, there will be probably always be "haters," but the best way to deal with them is to be a success anyway.



Bossy is defined as, "inclined to domineer; dictatorial." There's a big difference between being bossy and being a boss. While in many cases, women are unfairly saddled with these labels, the tips provided above will help you bring your leadership A-game to redefine the stereotypes of women in leadership.

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I now have Taylor Swift in my brain! :) But in a great way as it's a reminder to own my seat at the table and be confident in who I am!

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