Being “Miss Bossypants”

I have a confession to make: No, I haven’t finished reading Tiny Fey’s lauded book ‘Bossypants’, but the parts that I have certainly resonated with me as a female in the workplace. It’s also smart, funny, relevant and surprisingly self-deprecating.

As The New York Times review of the book says: “It’s a fair representation of Ms. Fey’s self-image as a smart, unyielding woman who has forced her way to the top of what is usually a man’s profession. “Only in comedy,” she writes, about interviewing for a writing job on “Saturday Night Live” in 1997, “does an obedient white girl from the suburbs count as diversity.” ”

Ok fine, so maybe the function of Human Resources is  seen more as a female domain rather than a traditionally male profession as compared to Tina Fey’s example. However, when individuals start aiming for those few C-suite level opportunities, all bets are off, it’s each for themselves, male or female.

So what does being a female “bossypants” look like from the top?

A recent Gallup poll shows that majority of Americans still prefer a male boss over a female  for one, although those figures have decreased since the 60s.

To add to that, there tends to be a perceived social penalty where women at the top are “bossy”, “aggresive” or “ambitious”, qualities that are not as frowned upon in the male species.

You’re probably quite familiar by now with the oft quoted example of Professor Frank Flynn’s Organisational Behaviour gender studies experiment at Stanford Graduate School of Business where “[He] presented to students the results from a study [he] did a couple years ago involving the Heidi Roizen case. Specifically, with Harvard’s permission, [he] changed the original materials so that one section of the class received a version of the case called “Howard” Roizen (same case, just different pronouns) and the other section received the original case. Before class, students [had to] go online and rate their impressions of “Roizen” on several dimensions.

As you might expect, the results show that students were much harsher on Heidi than on Howard across the board. Although they think she’s just as competent and effective as Howard, they don’t like her, they wouldn’t hire her, and they wouldn’t want to work with her. As gender researchers would predict, this seems to be driven by how much they disliked Heidi’s aggressive personality. The more assertive they thought Heidi was, the more harshly they judged her (but the same was not true for those who rated Howard).”

That certainly adds up to be a bit of an unattractive value proposition!


So how can we overcome these biases while remaining true to ourselves? It certainly is no easy task. I’ve for one found that it requires a strong sense of self belief.

If you genuinely want to help and want to care, it shows on the outside and in your mode of delivery, and that makes the moments that you have to be professionally no-nonsense a little more palatable.

I admit that yes, there are plenty examples where there are exceptions to the rule and we are indeed in mass generalisation mode here, but hey, a rule of thumb needs to start somewhere.

Perhaps I’ll leave it to Sheryl Sandberg to sum it up nicely in, where “overcoming [social penalties] without tempering our ambitions touch on many of the skills and strategies that Sandberg outlines for advocating for ourselves, overcoming impostor syndrome and establishing boundaries. She neatly sums up how to do that, suggesting “smiling frequently, expressing appreciation and concern, invoking common interests, emphasizing larger goals, and approaching the negotiation as solving a problem as opposed to taking a critical stance.” “


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