Bossy jerk

Sheryl Sandberg, Corporate Operations Officer of Facebook, has created a Ban Bossy campaign to encourage girls to be leaders. Many celebrities have expressed support for the campaign and even advertisers have taken up the cause as a means to market to women.


Sandberg makes several distinct claims about the use and meaning of “bossy.” Some have merit, others are misleading. All of them are fruitful for understanding cultural roles, inequalities, and how they play into perception, attitude and emotional response. I want to take them separately and look at some data.


  • “bossy” is used more to describe females than for males
  • this disparity shows an inequality in our cultural stereotypes
  • cultural stereotypes influence our perception of behavior and our emotional response to behavior
  • the cultural role of boss is masculine so males can’t effectively be disparaged by “bossy”
  • the cultural feminine roles include nurturing roles, not boss roles, so females playing the boss role are perceived as inappropriate
  • the cultural masculine roles include boss, so when men abuse their authority or are pushy or bossy, their behavior is accepted as a norm

Evidence supports some of these claims but not others. A linguistic analysis leads to a more complex relationship between cultural roles/stereotypes/expectations and human attitudes/perceptions/emotional responses that may be independent of the culture. I’m using a beautiful data mine developed by Ben Schmidt. It mines Rate My Professor, an online website that allows students to review their professors. since the professor’s name is identified, the reviews can be sorted by professor’s sex, give or take a few ambiguous names. Professors are quintessential authorities, the reviews are perfectly suited to an understanding of the use and frequency of words like “bossy.”


First, the data clearly show that “bossy” is used more often for female profs than for male ones, although it is used substantially for male professors too. Does this imply that female professors are perceived as bossier than males? That is the Ban Bossy claim — women are rejected in positions of authority. A quick look at “jerk” seems to refute that claim.

“Jerk” is used exclusively for males and it appears in the corpus far more frequently than “bossy” — something like 35 times more frequently. That’s not a little. It’s a huge difference. Are there other negative epithets that might be used for women that are more frequent than “bossy”?

“Mean” is also used more frequently for females than for males. Does this support the Ban Bossy view?

The distribution of “jerk” implies that our language has gendered epithets. “Jerk” is for males, “bossy” for females. If that’s so, then the reason “bossy” is used more for females than for males implies nothing about the emotional response to female roles. It’s used more often because “jerk” is the preferred epithet for males.

The data actually show the opposite of the Ban Bossy view of emotional response to female/male role or expectation. Students object to male authority frequently, possibly more frequently than female authorities. The greater frequency of “mean” for females shows the same: why describe a male as “mean” when there are so many more, and more expressive, epithets for men, including not just “jerk” but “dick,” “douche,” “dickhead,” “prick,” “douchebag,” “son-of-a-bitch,” “bastard” and the declining “schmuck.” Rate My Professor no longer allows the most common epithet for males, “asshole,” but the data mine provides partial data — I assume that Rate My Professor closed below-the-belt epithets shortly after they appeared.

Couple of points here. The wealth of epithets for men imply that in our culture we freely object to male abuse of authority. It’s enshrined in the language. The frequency of their use demonstrates that we object to male abuse of authority. So the differential use of “bossy” is purely linguistic fact, not a fact about our perceptions influencing emotional response. We dislike abuse of authority whether the authority is male or female.

The data also show that our language is gendered. There seem to be many more epithets for male abuse of authority than for females, which does very much correlate with the social fact that men are mostly bosses, or that through the development of our language, bosses were mostly men.

Notice that both “bossy” and “mean” are not particularly gendered in themselves and are literally descriptive and not either metaphorical or metonymic. All the vulgar male epithets are metaphorical or metonymic or both: they refer to taboo body parts some of which metaphorically relate to acts of sexual violence, or they relate metaphorically to the social stigma of illegitimacy. In the context of Rate My Professor, “bossy” and “mean” may indicate a second choice after “bitch” which RMP will not accept as a review. Not exactly a euphemism, but a kind of nonce euphemism.

More important, there are many negative words for females, but they do not cover the abuse of authority. Several include “dits,” “airhead,” “twit” (used for both females and males), “bimbo.” I compare these with cultural female/male attire: pockets are the characteristic of male attire; not only are pants and jackets full of pockets and dresses, skirts and blouses largely devoid of them, but taking a minimal pair — men’s jeans and women’s jeans — you’ll find that women’s jeans’ pockets are often shallow and useless, whereas mens’ are deep and many. Pockets are utilitarian in the sense of of managing the outside world through tools. Pockets hold those tools. Womens’ wear is designed for attractiveness (whether for the male gaze or otherwise), not any other utility besides covering and warmth, and often inadequate for both of those.

Putting the attire next to the epithets a pattern emerges. The cultural roles for men are ones of control and manipulation of the world including other people. The response to their aggressive control is a wealth of epithets that object to male power. The cultural roles for women include aesthetic appeal. The negative epithets might be described as “pretty but useless.”

It seems to me important that the responses to authority in RMP shows that our attitudes towards these cultural roles do not numb our emotions. Any expectation that the boss will be male does not incline us to accept the abuse of authority or prevent us from objecting to it in the strongest terms. So we can distinguish between the cultural roles and the perceptions of them. The data implies to me that culture does not determine thought, it just gives us different ways to express our thoughts depending on cultural categories.

The Ban Bossy campaign has given us an important avenue of research to discover

a. the cultural roles embedded in our language

b. the independence of our responses to those roles

The feminist agenda is a fruitful lens with which to investigate not just the facts of our society — inequities of pay and power — but also of culture and attitude in our language and our perceptions.

Part II — Questions for further research

A more disturbing fact in the data is the disparity in use of “brilliant” and “genius.” These are not gendered words, yet they are used to describe males more frequently than for females, and “genius,” the more hyperbolic word is even more biased towards men than “brilliant.” Assuming that females are at least as bright as men if not brighter, how do we account for this disparity in perception?

In this case, I speculate that this is not a linguistic fact but a behavioral and perceptual reflex — exactly the opposite of the “bossy” analysis which is merely about the lack of available gendered words for female abuse of authority. If males are brought up in our culture to be special, competitive and superior, while females are brought up to be servants — the nurturer, the mother who serves her children,m the caretaker — it would be no surprise if the male instructor in class would present himself as special, competitive with his ideas and superior, while the female instructor would be focused on the students.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: