'Banning' the word bossy won't get us anywhere

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc.

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook Inc. Photo: Bloomberg

If there’s a word I most vividly remember being used to describe me when I was a little girl, it was definitely “weird”. Coming a close second after that, however, was “bossy”.

(It might have had something to do with trying to organise the guests at my 5th birthday party into an impromptu performance of The Wizard Of Oz. In its entirety.)

"I'm not bossy, I'm the boss," says Beyonce in Sheryl Sandberg's PSA.

"I'm not bossy, I'm the boss," says Beyonce in Sheryl Sandberg's PSA. Photo: Getty

That childhood memory is, along with an eight-figure pay cheque, something I share with Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, along with fellow “bossy” women including Beyonce and Condoleezza Rice - launched a campaign this week to ban the word 'bossy' when describing women and particularly young girls.

They teamed up with Girl Scouts of the USA in order to promote a #banbossy initiative that aims to encourage girls and young women to embrace personality traits (like confidence or leadership skills) that are often tagged as negative attributes for women.

In an editorial for the Wall Street Journal, Sandberg and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez write, “And "bossy" is just the beginning. As girls mature, the words may change, but their meaning and impact remain the same. Women who behave assertively are labeled "aggressive," "angry," "shrill" and "overly ambitious." Powerful and successful men are often well liked, but when women become powerful and successful, all of us—both men and women—tend to like them less.”

Those of you who read a certain self-help bible released last year by Sandberg may be suffering deja vu right now - what is #banbossy if not Tween In?

The reaction so far has been mixed, from “Stupidest Campaign Ever” from the brightest wits of our generation (“If you have to monitor and regulate other people's speech to feel better about yourself, you are NOT empowered” is just one highlight), to a more muted response that agrees that young women are up against it but seems less sure that “banning” bossy is the way to go.

Reacting to #banbossy in The XX Factor, Slate’s Katy Waldman wonders if we might be better off trying to reclaim “bossy” rather than retire it to the linguistic slag heap: “Bossy seems like a great candidate for rehabilitation: It’s attached to a positive noun, boss, and using it to mean someone with ‘executive leadership skills’ might help normalise the idea that women can be in charge.”

While there’s no denying the oompf of having Queen Bey announce, matter-of-factly, “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss” (perhaps next she could cover her husband’s searing On To The Next One: “Baby I'm a boss, I don't know what they do/I don't get dropped, I drop the label”), I’m inclined to agree with Waldman.

“Banning” the word bossy isn’t going to do much, ultimately. One thing I learned as I got older was that the energy wasted by saying “Don’t call me bossy!” and stomping my feet would be better spent saying “Hell yeah I’m bossy/an asshole/ambitious [etc]” and getting on with the job of, well, being the boss. 

Do I have “executive leadership skills”, though? That I’m not so sure of. The issue at the core of #banbossy is that the Lean In model of empowerment refers to a very specific sort of success for women - after all, “executive leadership skills” doesn’t have much to do with anything that isn’t a macho business model.

Yes, nurturing “executive leadership skills” might be good news for young girls who are keen to be president or who covet Sandberg's Facebook COO crown, but what about the otherwise quiet girl, who wants to be a musical therapist or graphic designer, who is called “bossy” when she speaks up once in class? I’m not sure the gung-ho approach is going to do much for her.

In their WSJ piece, Sandberg and Chávez write, “The irony, of course, is that so-called bossy women make great leaders. And we need great leaders.” Well, yes, we do need great leaders. But great leaders can also be the very opposite of bossy, and when macho, individualist workplace and political models continue to get us to places like the global financial crisis (and oh, I don’t know, war), perhaps it’s time not to wonder if “bossy” needs to be banned, but our entire model of leadership.

That’s less hashtaggable, though, for sure. 

14 comments

  • I love this campaign! I was labelled bossy as a child and young adult and it is only now as I approach middle age that I have realised this is an asset. These skills, part of broader leadership skills, are highly valuable in all sorts of careers. It took me 20 years to work through this on my own, wouldn't it be fantastic if we could help others girls and women with a shortcut.

    Commenter
    Embleberries
    Date and time
    March 12, 2014, 8:23AM
    • I've always thought of bossy was a way of trying to be the boss. Heaps of bosses aren't bossy, and heaps of non-bosses are bossy. It's more a way of trying to make people do what you want - disrespectful, negative, controlling and so forth.

      Commenter
      Nick
      Date and time
      March 12, 2014, 11:09AM
  • How about instead of banning the word "bossy" we make it gender neutral! I've had plenty of bossy male bosses.

    Commenter
    Didge
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    March 12, 2014, 8:49AM
    • Yeah, that was my first thought. Why 'ban bossy' when you could teach women and girls, and everyone really, not to be hurt by the things other people say about them? This campaign is trying to change other people's behaviour, rather than improve people's resilience to it.

      Commenter
      Kylie
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      March 12, 2014, 9:16AM
      • Kylie - my take on it was that the campaign was trying to highlight the fact that the exact same behaviour is considered a positive show of strength and competence in men, but a sign of aggressive, controlling shrewishness in women.

        We've had enough lessons in ignoring double standards, and turning the other cheek. I'm sure the women in leadership roles who get hit with "bossy" and "overbearing" aren't nursing hurt feelings over it, but it is a factor in undermining their authority by suggesting they're being irrationally angry, rather than justifiably firm and direct.

        Commenter
        Josie
        Location
        Surry Hills
        Date and time
        March 12, 2014, 9:53AM
      • I don't think anyone resents confidence so long as it's competent. But confident competence usually comes with a good measure of kind humility. There seems to be an attempt in the past half century to get women to imitate the kind of male all men hate - the authoritarian, non-humble jerk, as though to be taken seriously or "heard" women need to be exactly a kind of jerk. Not all men like all men. Not all women like all women. Why aim for the lowest type of authority? Why not the highest? Why not focus on the QUALITY of leadership personality instead of assuming you need to bark to be heard?

        Commenter
        adboughton
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 12, 2014, 10:54AM
      • josie
        I disagree. Many, many men in my life and work experience have been labelled "bossy".
        Unfortunately this appears to be a campaign designed to prevent yet another form of criticism of any woman, working or not.
        We need to understand that calling someone "bossy" has ZERO to do with not accepting a person's wonderful leadership skills and sense of supreme being blah,blah.
        A "bossy" person is someone that is unreasonably demanding, or attempts to destroy cohesion in groups, or another's leadership position by demanding that everything is done to suit them.
        In Beyonce saying "I'm the Boss!" are we saying that for her life in general? ie Everything must move/change/ be formed only to suit her?
        Surely reasonable people want no part of such a thing.

        Commenter
        david
        Date and time
        March 12, 2014, 12:19PM
    • Great article Clem, and I agree. While I think Sandberg is doing pretty good things for women in the executive world they can't really be translated into other areas, and they leave behind women (and people, really) who are introverted by pushing qualities of being assertive, loud and dominant. It's for this reason I've never been a massive fan of her personally. Culture needs too change, not words.

      Commenter
      nemo
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      March 12, 2014, 10:05AM
      • I think men and women (parents especially) need to be trained to associate "bossy" with leadership potential, regardless of gender. It's also time we stop conditioning girls to be submissive and accepting of all sorts of patriarchal twaddle.

        Commenter
        JJ
        Date and time
        March 12, 2014, 3:06PM
    • Go ahead and ban "bossy". All that will happen is that everyone will go back to using "aggressive, power hungry bitch".

      Commenter
      MrDamage
      Date and time
      March 12, 2014, 10:05AM

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