Sheryl Sandberg Ban Bossy

'Bossy' or Not, Business Women Can Handicap Their Careers

There has been a lot of media focus lately on Sheryl Sandberg's new campaign for empowering girls, Ban Bossy. The campaign's website,, states that “words like bossy send a message: don't raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys – a trend that continues into adulthood.”

Sandberg is Facebook's Chief Operating Officer and the author of Lean In, a book about corporate leadership for women, so her words carry a lot of weight.

But whether you agree with the program or not, and some do not (Sheryl Sandberg wrong on 'bossy' ban, declared an opinion column on CNN), there are specific behaviors that women exhibit in the workplace that can cause them to lose visibility and power. These verbal and non-verbal actions send the message: “It’s OK to discount me,” “Don’t listen to me,” and “Don’t take me as seriously as that man on the other side of the table.”  

Recently I came across one of my old newsletter articles that encouraged women to tune in and pay attention to their visibility and power factors. The promotion-hindering behaviors described in 25 items in that article are still occurring, and still limiting women’s careers.

One extra point. I could apologize that this article is longer than most of mine, but I won’t. As a female in the business world, I, like many women, have had to learn not to apologize when there is nothing to apologize for….  But to make it easier for the reader to absorb, I have split the information into two articles. Here are the first 11 points:

1. Contribute – even if it’s a stretch. Women tell me that contributing in meetings can be difficult, especially if they are of lower rank than the other participants, or the only woman present. Get over it! You need to contribute, or your visibility factor goes to zero. Men tend to contribute more, so their ideas are adopted more often. Be prepared. Before a meeting, consider what you might be asked or what you can contribute. Speak early – ask a question or make an observation or statement. The longer you wait, the more difficult it will be to build up your nerve to speak.  

2. Don’t ask permission to talk. Women often ask, “May I say something?” Others raise a hand to “request” permission to speak.  One high-level corporate lawyer was shocked when she realized she was the only person in the meeting raising her hand. Instead, say something like, “The question remaining is…” or just start talking to add your point.

3. Interrupt. Interrupting can be an annoying speaking habit, but sometimes it’s vital for women to put aside the niceties to create an opportunity to speak. When interrupting, you can say, “To build on what you are saying…” or “We also need to discuss….”

4. Be assertive if interrupted.  When a man interrupts a woman, she often will stop talking. When I was teaching in Oman, a woman pointed out that she had noticed that American men interrupt American women on our TV shows. That’s a reflection of reality in our culture, so women have to resist the impulse to give up the floor automatically to men. Don’t ask permission to continue, such as “Can I finish?” Jump right back in with a polite and powerful comment such as, “Hold that thought…,” “I wasn't finished…,” or “I’ll talk about that in just a second….”

5. Stand when appropriate to present your ideas. Women stay seated much too often. Standing is a more powerful position, because it forces others to look up to you.

6. Don’t take notes. A woman told me she was the only person in the room taking notes when others spoke. The men just listened. As a result, she appeared to be the administrative assistant.

7. Know when to stop talking. Women tend to give too much detail. If you go on and on, others will tune you out. Make your point succinctly, and then stop talking!

8. Toot your own horn. You don’t want to be obnoxious, but you must learn to speak well of yourself. You can weave your accomplishments into a story or illustration, as if you are offering the information for the other person’s benefit.  An example of this is the Oman story described in item 4 above.  You now know that I have taught in the Middle East.

9. Give formal presentations. Giving presentations increases your visibility within your company/department. As a bonus, it can help you become known as an expert.  If public speaking makes you nervous, take a class on presentation skills. Giving effective presentations is a skill that can be mastered, with training and practice. Additional information on presentation skills can be found in my new book, The Essentials of Business Etiquette. 

10. Accept compliments.  Women often discount themselves when given a compliment.  If someone tells you, “Great job,” don’t say, “Oh, it was nothing,” or “Anyone could have done it.”  Accept that compliment by saying, “Thank you,” and then shut your mouth!

11. Eliminate self-discounting language. Self-discounting words include: kinda, sorta, maybe, perhaps, probably, just, and actually. These are the extra words that, when added to sentences, discount what the speaker is saying.  If you say, “Maybe we have to look at all the possibilities,” others will think, “Well, should we or shouldn't we?” If you say, “It’s kinda a problem and perhaps we should…” the other person could dismiss the whole idea as wishy-washy.

See "Bossy Part 2" for the conclusion of this article.

Barbara Pachter  |
Barbara is an internationally-renowned business etiquette and communications speaker, coach and author. She has delivered more than 2100 seminars throughout the world including the first-ever seminar for businesswomen in Kuwait. Her 10th book, "The Essentials of Business Etiquette: How to Greet, Eat, and Tweet Your Way to Success," (McGraw-Hill)was recently published. She coaches women internationally on Executive Presence via Skype.