'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.