Women in the Workplace: Bossiness & Ideas for Change

In last week’s post, I wrote about how women struggle with the issue of likeability in the workplace as well as the fine line women often have to walk, especially in male-dominated professions. This week I will look at how the assertive woman is viewed in the workplace, and I will propose some possibilities for changing our way of thinking about gender and success in the workplace.

Bossy: The Other B Word

Bossy is not often a word or sentiment we hear applied to a male supervisor who is demanding. Often it gets used as a negative label for a woman who is seen as too demanding in the workplace. These are attitudes held by both men and women. Even though we seem to look down upon a woman who exhibits any kind of assertiveness in the workplace, we often praise men for doing the same thing. Steve Jobs was praised for his authoritative approach to leadership. Would we have felt the same way had Steve been Stephanie Jobs?

In my own career, I have witnessed women (myself included) regularly being called out for not being nice enough when they speak up and disagree—something that does not seem to be a complaint about men nearly as often. Is it a matter of women just not being nice? I don’t think so. We seem to have this expectation that women are the caregivers of our society, and this trickles over into how we view them in the workplace. This creates extra challenges for women who end up in jobs in environments that are not usually seen as caring and nurturing, such as the professional kitchens I mentioned in my last post.

When a woman in a kitchen calls out orders and demands a certain level of performance from her staff without coddling them, does the problem lie with how this goes against our expectations about what a woman should be? I once worked for a woman who was often labeled a cold-hearted bitch. I have worked for people who could accurately be described this way, and I did not think this particular supervisor fit that description at all. I think people had a tendency to label her this way because she was able to deal with tricky situations without getting emotionally involved. She was not a warm and fuzzy leader, but that was what was needed, and these were traits that were praised in men who were leaders at the company.

Changing the Workplace

In their discussion of women shouldering the burden of office housework, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Wharton School professor Adam Grant explain that “the most important change starts with a shift in mind-set: If we want to care for others, we also need to take care of ourselves.” They go on to say that men need to speak up and point out women’s contributions.

While I think there is value in Sandberg and Grant calling on women to shift their mindset and prioritize their own needs in the workplace, I find that the authors place too much of the burden on the individual rather than the institutions that continue to reinforce gender stereotypes when it comes to work tasks. If we are going to change the workplace, we need to be aware of our own expectations.

In their study on female chefs, sociologists Deborah Harris and Patti Giuffre concluded, “it’s likely that men and women chefs (on the whole) are not radically different in terms of skills, leadership qualities and professional drive. What are different are the perceptions and experiences of men and women chefs.”

As I mentioned in my last post, it starts with asking ourselves if we are judging an employee based on gender or based on performance and skills. If you think of a woman as too nice, not nice enough, too bossy or any other trait that often falls along gender lines, ask yourself if you would think the same of a man exhibiting similar behaviors. When we fall into the trap of judging someone’s ability in the workplace based on gender, we do harm to both men and women. Think of Ben Stiller’s character in Meet the Parents. It becomes a running a joke that he is a male nurse—a caregiving profession that is typically seen as female. Despite the high level of skill, knowledge and training that goes into a nursing career, it is often viewed as lesser because it is seen as a “female” profession.

It is also important that we do not see this as a battle of men vs. women. We are all responsible for upholding outdated views on what a person’s gender says about their ability as a worker.


Harris, Deborah and Patti Giuffre. “A Sociological Study of Why So Few Women Chefs in Restaurant Kitchens.” The Feminist Kitchen, 18 July 2011. Web. 12 March 2015.

Sandberg, Sheryl and Adam Grant. “Madam C.E.O., Get Me a Coffee: Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant on Women Doing ‘Office Housework.’The New York Times 6 February 2015. Web.

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Stephanie Hammerwold

Stephanie Hammerwold, is the founder and director of Pacific Reentry Career Services, a Southern California nonprofit that helps formerly incarcerated women find and maintain employment. She also blogs on a variety of HR topics as the HR Hammer. When not volunteering for her nonprofit, Stephanie has a day job in HR at a tech startup in Irvine, CA.


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