Woman Leading Business

From Bossy to Boss: Mitigating the Backlash for Female Leaders

on January 29 | in Leadership | by | with No Comments

In late 2013, an ad from Pantene circulated social media, garnering more than 24 million views on YouTube.  Thanks to Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg, it received a boost in visibility after she posted it to her Facebook page. While ultimately produced to sell Pantene hair products, the ad is part of their #ShineStrong Campaign and draws attention to unfair characterizations between men and women. As seen below, the ad leads with discrepancy in the workplace when an assertive man serving as a leader is a boss while a woman in the same position is often labeled bossy. This is an issue that is not unique to one industry or company. Current research by Catherine Tinsley, one of our faculty, shows that not only do women who act assertively experience backlash, but that backlash has implications for how good a leader they are assumed to be and for the deals they negotiate, which can affect their career trajectories.

What’s a woman to do? Unfortunately, they cannot easily change others’ knee-jerk perceptions or the negative labels they face. However, through a series of empirical studies, Tinsley and her colleagues have identified contextual factors that can mitigate the backlash and help women advance and lead more effectively.

1.       Play for the Team: They find that when women assert themselves on behalf of others, they are able to do so effectively. While being assertive is not viewed as a gender norm for females, nurturing and caring for others is. Next time you are negotiating a deal for you and your team, try using “we” pronouns instead of “I.”

2.       Own Your Status: If a woman’s title and position within an organization is unknown, she is perceived to be of lower status than her male equals. However, her studies found that women face less  backlash when they enjoy “externally conferred” status, meaning a certain rank or status is achieved and recognized by a third party. That next promotion from your boss may not just bring a title change (and hopefully salary boost!) but also an external legitimacy to your wielding of authority.

3.       Use Resources Wisely: When there is an abundance of resources – and a decreased threat of failure – gender norms become looser and a wider range of leadership behavior is acceptable. While this rings true for all leaders, it is especially important for female leaders who usually experience tighter behavior restrictions. Use the opportunities created by abundant resources to advance and grow your leadership role with your organization.

We’d like to think gender doesn’t make a difference for executives. But, until the gender norms of socially acceptable behavior change, understanding contextual factors may be the answer for women to go from bossy to boss in the workplace

Catherine H. Tinsley is a Professor of Management at the McDonough School of Business and is Executive Director of the Georgetown University Women’s Leadership Initiative (GUWLI). Learn more about GUWLI.

Amanatullah, E. T. & Tinsley, C.H. (2013) “Punishing female negotiators for asserting too much…or not enough: When advocacy moderates backlash.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 120(1), 110-122.
Tinsley, C.H., Cheldelin, S.I., Schneider, A.K., & Amantullah, E.T. (2009). Women at the bargaining table: Pitfalls and prospects. Negotiation Journal, 25 (2): 233-248.
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