What the Data Reveal About Whether ‘Bossy’ Matters

Recently, Beyonce joined the banbossy.com campaign intended to empower young girls aspiring to become leaders while raising awareness about the obstacles they will have to overcome in order to achieve their goals.

The campaign and its reactions two important questions. First, do women actually still face any unjust barriers? Second, if indeed they do, is the appropriate response to address the systematic bias directly, or focus on empowering women? In other words, women are always going to face adversity, but learning to cope with such adversity develops stronger female leadership in the long run. Therefore, there is no need to do anything except encourage them to be tough and persistent.

To address the first, question, let’s look at the data. In “Gender and the evaluation of leaders: A meta-analysis,” the authors concluded that female supervisors are perceived less favorably than male supervisors, especially when female supervisors use “stereotypically masculine styles.” This effect was greater for women “in male-dominated roles and when evaluators were men.”

As one might imagine, these perceptions seem to have an impact on the relative effectiveness of female supervisors. For example, Eagly et al. (1995) found that male and female supervisors were equally effective according to the aggregate data. However, they also found that women had a more difficult time in roles that were typically seen as more masculine while being more successful than men in roles that were seen as more feminine.

The data also shows how women had a more difficult time in male-dominated fields. Taken together, the two meta-analyses suggest that female supervisors face social barriers based in gender. It’s interesting to think about how these variances in perception might reinforce gendered choices, subtly incentivizing women to stay in the roles people think of as feminine.

What’s worse is Ritter and Yoder (2004) found that gender stereotypes overall encourage people to prefer male leadership. This is true even in heterosexual relationships with more dominant females and less dominant males, when tasks were “masculine-typed or neutral,”, thus decreasing women’s chances of taking on leadership roles. (Click here for more evidence of leadership gender bias against women.)

In summary, there is evidence in the literature which supports the Ban Bossy claim that systematic biases persist against female leadership, especially when it comes to leadership styles and tasks that are traditionally seen as more masculine and in male-dominated fields. This bias also does not appear to just be a phenomenon of the work place.

For the second question, it should be obvious that there are benefits to a focus on female ‘empowerment,’ as opposed to female victimhood. However, the two are not mutually exclusive. In order to be fully empowered, women (and people in general) need to recognize, and know how to cope with and combat adversity.

Another important part of empowerment also comes from social support systems that acknowledge their struggles and provide support. Sometimes that support is emotional and moral support. People need to know that others have their back and that prejudiced behavior applied against them is not okay. It helps when they are confident that others, especially their friends and other coworkers, are willing to stand up for them. Therefore, it seems that as a part of a social support system, we are all obligated to our female friends and associates to provide the support that they need.

Banbossy.com provides a kind of social support intended to empower girls. Whether you believe it is empowering or not, that’s the purpose.

Even if you disagree that a part of empowerment involves peers standing up for their friends and associates in open opposition to gendered social barriers, you should be opposed to such barriers as a matter of justice.

Systematic biases create and reinforce social barriers on morally arbitrary grounds. Assuming we value equality in the sense that all individuals have equal moral worth and rights, then prejudices on the basis of sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. are morally wrong as they cultivate attitudes that promote actions that disrespect people’s moral worth as equal individuals. Acting on those prejudices is also morally wrong and unjust. As a matter of justice, we should oppose such attitudes and actions. That does not mean we are permitted to use force to restrain or silence the prejudiced, but it does mean we have a duty to oppose them whenever their prejudices are manifest.

In conclusion, we, as a moral community, have a duty to empower and support each other. This means we should recognize the immorality of gender-based discrimination and the attitudes which disincentivize women from leadership roles, and inform others of this view. This empowerment also entails a commitment to provide support when needed. We should also resist gendered biases as a matter of moral duty and justice even if we believe female empowerment does not entail resistance.

Fortunately, things are getting better. Women are taking on more leadership roles (and succeeding!) than ever before and that is partially thanks to female empowerment and social support.

I would admonish libertarians to take more of an active stance in support of women on this and other issues. The progressive left is growing and if we surrender the moral high ground and allow them to hold a monopoly on it, they will continue to grow with less resistance on that front than there could otherwise be. The reality is that Hillary Clinton is likely to run in 2016 with a platform that includes many ‘women’s issues’. We have a great opportunity to change the discussion in our favor and help prevent the progressives from continuing to make further encroachments on individual liberty. I hope we take advantage of that opportunity.


Chet Lake holds a Bachelor’s of Science from Arizona State University. He likes to draw upon insights from psychology, sociology and other relevant fields of inquiry in his analysis of various political, economic and social issues. His other interests include philosophy, science, exercise, hanging out with friends, movies and spending quality time with loved ones.

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