It's time to eliminate the ‘B word’ at work

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If the retail and consumer products industry wants to get serious about advancing women leaders, we're going to have to get rid of the B word — bossy.

Too many of us — male and female — expect women be supportive in the workplace and men to take charge. In our male-dominated workplace cultures, men are rewarded for being assertive and speaking their minds. Women are often are discouraged — even disparaged — for these same traits.

The result: Our businesses are not benefiting from the collaborative, flexible leadership style of female leaders — a style valued by Millennials and, as research by DDILehigh UniversityMcKinsey & Co. and others has shown, brings real results.

When women are less confident and hesitate to demonstrate leadership behaviors necessary to build their careers, it doesn't just hold women back, it discourages male leaders from working outside corporate America's outdated, less effective leadership style. Clinging to this old leadership model hurts businesses, which rise or fall on well-led, high-functioning teams comprised of the best talent available.

Ask yourself: Are some of the women you work with perceived as "too nice" for leadership? Are women who do speak out considered "too bossy” (or worse)? Research shows that women are judged by a double standard and caught in a double bind. It’s a no-win situation — for everyone.

Let’s give credit where credit is due. Many of this industry's most successful companies are working to change their workplace cultures and increase diversity in their leadership ranks. Retailers and consumer products companies are recognizing that women's leadership is essential to their business and are advancing high-potential talent to positions of more responsibility and greater visibility.

Still, these efforts to close the gender gap are often thwarted by what three female Harvard faculty call "a mismatch between how women are seen and the qualities and experiences people tend to associate with leaders."

Inclusion equals profits

But the tide is changing. Maybe you've seen the popular hashtag #banbossy, part of the Ban Bossy movement launched in 2014 by LeanIn.Org and Girl Scouts USA.

Ban Bossy's mission is to eliminate the use of the word "bossy" because of its negative effect on young women. The campaign encourages girls to stop apologizing before they speak, challenge themselves and stop doing everyone else's work — all great advice for women who want to advance their careers.

Ban Bossy also offers great tips for managers of women who want to nurture a workplace where everyone can succeed. Here are five that hit home for me:

  • Push back on the "likeability penalty." We've all heard it around the office. A woman is described as "out for herself" or "too aggressive." Ask the person using that language (and yourself) "Would you say the same if she was a man?" My guess is the answer would be "No." By the way, women are as likely as men to have a gender-biased reaction.
  • Get everyone to sit at the table and participate. Take note at your next team meeting. Are men sitting in the front and center seats while women are sitting around the edge? Are men doing most of the talking? Are women interrupted more than men? If so, ask women directly to contribute to the conversation, and when they do, call out their contributions by name.
  • Encourage women to negotiate. Men are much more likely than women to negotiate for a raise or promotion because women fear being perceived unfavorably. Make sure everyone on your team knows it's important to advocate for themselves and ask for what they deserve.
  • Distribute the work equally. Most women find their careers stalled in support roles, as promotions go to those — mostly men — who are given roles with P&L responsibility. Are the women you work with turning down stretch assignments because they are concerned about a heavy workload or work/life balance or fear of failure? Try to understand why talented women may not be taking positions that lead to bigger things.
  • Mentor and sponsor women. Women have a harder time than men finding influential mentors and sponsors. Are you and the male leaders in your company championing high-potential women or are the men choosing male protégés who share the same interests and viewpoints?

Every manager can chip away at unconscious gender bias. Stop using the word "bossy" and focus on a few other B words: the benefits of diverse and inclusive teams and a better workplace and bottom line for all.

Blog Author Bio

Joan Toth is past president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, the largest women’s leadership organization serving the retail and consumer goods industry.

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