Bossy, stubborn, pushy, cold. These are common words used to label female leaders, but not generally used to describe their male counterparts. Often, any defining characteristics used are more so directly linked to a woman’s likability rather than her ability to lead. This ingrained societal behaviour continues gender biases and impacts confidence levels, while further increasing difficulties for women looking to achieve higher positions, like being overlooked for promotion.
We all have unconscious biases that can create barriers instead of an inclusive environment that promotes based on performance instead of preconceived notions. It’s vital for us to all take our word choices into careful consideration because, whether intentional or not, it can come across as demeaning, biased, and discriminatory. With the lens of female leadership, it’s important to understand how gender bias and ingrained speech mannerisms negatively impact one gender while solely benefitting the other.
5 Common Words Typically Used to Describe Women Leaders
There’s a clear double standard when it comes to assessing the actions and characteristics of leaders and their gender, with many negative connotations placed on women. They are more frequently labelled as bossy when making plans or developing employees, whereas men are seen as assertive.
Replace bossy with assertive to help shift gender biases and stereotyped narratives.
It’s common that when a woman stays her ground on a particular topic or situation, she is more likely to be seen as stubborn and unmoving. It can be seen in the way we shift the narrative (internally and externally) to accommodate the word stubborn, and the negative association attached to it. A male leader, who is steadfast to their strategies or beliefs, are seen as decisive and sure-footed for the same actions as female counterparts.
Replace stubborn with decisive (firm) to help shift gender biases and stereotyped narratives.
Similar to bossy, the term micromanager rears its head when women leaders are monitoring performance reports, making strategic plans, and streamlining processes. Male counterparts are typically seen as strategic in their ability to navigate the team and spearhead initiatives.
Replace micromanager with strategically involved to help shift gender biases and stereotyped narratives.
More often than not, women are penalized for their emotions. This has caused many women to be more reserved in the workplace to compensate for the way their emotions are viewed and received. When female leaders are more conservative in their show of emotions, they are called cold or other less appealing words. On the other hand, men are praised for being confident and reserved, as ‘emotions’ can be perceived as a weakness.
Replace cold with stoic to help shift gender biases and stereotyped narratives.
Whether it’s not emotional enough or too emotional, women are often shamed for their valid emotional responses to a situation. If a woman expresses her frustrations over an employee’s performance or something falling through, she is seen as being emotional or irrational. Emotions, though we all have them, have become a way of describing weakness and foolishness — and it has been directly associated as a feminine trait. However, when men, who express their emotions, are generally praised as being passionate and inspirational.
Replace emotional with passionate to help shift gender biases and stereotyped narratives.
It’s important to continue levelling the playing field by shifting preconceived biases and notions of descriptive language used for female leadership — and targeting bias in your workplace.
Whether intentional or not, this double standard of word choice when comparing women to male leaders continues to suppress female advancement opportunities, or the will to chase them.