Don’t call me bossy: I am the boss


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Last week I fulfilled an ambition to be quoted in Cosmopolitan magazine.

It was in connection with the excellent #RewritingTheCode spearheaded by Sarah Brown (wife of ex PM Gordon) and Stemettes co-founder, Ann-Marie Imafidon MBE. The campaign aims to change attitudes that prevent girls from succeeding and leading, using the ‘embed’ symbol (< >) to expose ‘bad code’. I’m extremely supportive of this initiative, partly because it’s about time these labels were abolished and partly because it’s exposing behaviours that many don’t even realise are wrong.

So what is ‘bad code’ and what’s it doing?

‘Bad code’ denotes words that are used to describe girls and women in a negative way. It’s either subtly belittling, i.e. referring to women as ‘girls’ or downright derogatory, i.e. calling them a ‘bitch’.

The expression that infuriates me most is ‘grow a pair’ as it insinuates that a woman needs to become a man to be respected. Another one I hate is ‘man up’, used to tell people they need to dry their tears and be strong. This one’s poison for both sexes as it implies that being emotional is wrong and that real men don’t cry.

And although the intention may be innocent, the impact is insidious. Words are the tools we use to describe experiences and make sense of the world. They have the power to create and destroy. So the more girls are praised for being ‘sweet’, ‘cute’ and ‘pretty’ the more they’ll believe that’s the box they need to fit into. The more they are chastised for being ‘bossy’, ‘moody’ and ‘feisty’, the less they’ll express their opinions and the quieter they’ll become.

Labeling women in this way is extremely harmful, because the less you speak, the less you’re noticed and the less you’re noticed, the fewer opportunities come your way. Not ideal, given that less than 25 per cent of board members of FTSE 100 companies are women.

To change the code, we need to rewrite the programme. Here are five steps women can take to get taken more seriously and be valued for the strengths they bring:

  • Call it out: the first step is education. When you hear someone using bad code, repeat back the words and then say, how would you feel if someone used those words to describe you?
  • Be the change: become a master at good code. Pay attention to how you compliment and praise women and girls. Value their opinions and actions more highly than their looks.
  • Avoid negative behaviours that could lead to people labeling you with ‘bad code’. If people describe you as fluffy or girlie, consider what actions you can take to be more focused and strong. If people call you a bitch, ask yourself whether you’re being over-aggressive or over-bearing and how you could be more assertive instead.
  • Use powerful, assertive language that cuts through the code. Use ‘I believe’ rather than ‘I think’; avoid wishy-washy fillers like ‘quite’, ‘just’, ‘sort of’, ‘maybe’ and ‘like’ and replace them with powerful pauses. Avoid gushy language like ‘really’, ‘absolutely’, ‘amazing’, ‘awesome’ – develop a lexicon of precise, descriptive words that shows you mean business.
  • Develop a Teflon coating so labels just slide off you, because they’re not important or relevant to where you want to be going in your career. The more focused you are on the job you’re there to do, the more it will influence how people see and treat you.

The next #Gravitas Masterclass is on 12th May in Central London and is open to men and women who want to be taken more seriously and increase their leadership impact and influence. There are only a few spaces left, so book now to avoid missing out!




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