“I’m not bossy, I’m a boss.”
Boy am I a fan of Sheryl Sandberg! Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead was personally one of the most important and influential books I read in 2013, I had to physically restrain myself from buying it and placing in the hands of a few people who I felt desperately needed to reexamine some of their own opinions and privilege. It’s not a perfect work,* but it is a significant one and has kicked off and re-energized a lot of conversations.
Skip ahead to more recently, Sandberg and Anna Maria Chavez penned a piece in the Wall Street Journal and announced a collaboration between the Lean In organization and the Girl Scouts of America to launch a campaign to end the use of the word “bossy,” particularly for girls.
I’m whole heartedly behind this in theory (though I’m not sure we need to ban the word so much as seriously recognize and reevaluate our usage of it). The word should simply describe a universal behavior but what makes it so problematic is that it’s applied almost exclusively to girls and women. As the article mentions, the earliest usage of it in the OED and one of it’s main descriptive definitions both relate specifically to women. Negatively.
I’m assertive and openly ambitious, starting in childhood I’ve taken it upon myself to assume leadership roles when given the opportunity, I’m occasionally competitive, and – yes – I’m naturally loud. I’ll step up to the plate if I think I’m the person for a job. I’ll disagree with a plan if I see harm in it. And if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called bossy in my life in a negative way, I could have retired out of college. If I had another dollar for every time I been called it for exhibiting behaviors that another person (of the opposite sex) was exhibiting in the same room at the same time and in the same situation, I could have retired out of high school.
I’m not going to argue that domineering behavior is a virtue, it’s not. Nor do I think that being rude or pushy or arrogant are useful or good actions, they aren’t. I am going to argue that if being aggressive or ambitious is bad for one person, it should be considered bad for another. The fact that it’s not, and that that difference is drawn so starkly down gender lines, is the problem. This campaign is not about addressing bad behavior, it is about addressing behavior that is only seen as bad when exhibited by certain people. It is about using a word as a silencing mechanism. It is about encouraging, accepting, or even tolerating behaviors, attitudes, and actions from one group of people while discouraging, frowning upon, or openly punishing another group for the same things.
How we talk to and about boys and girls matters, especially if we talk to and about them so differently. I know from personal experience that those differences are felt and have long lasting effects.
What do you guys think about the campaign to #banbossy? I support it, especially in spirit, but in addition to how often I’ve been called it as an insult, occasionally it’s been used towards me as a compliment or encouragement as well. Not nearly as many times, but it has happened. I’m not convinced that it is in an of itself a wrong word to use to describe behavior, but I am convinced it’s used disproportionately to shush or dismiss girls and women. Is this the way to fix the problem? Is there a better one? Tell me your thoughts, I’m curious to hear them.
*My main issue with Lean In is that I felt it dealt with the work/family/life/ambitions/career concerns of primarily higher succeeding and educated women – leaving huge segments of the female population who are often already underprivileged and whose concerns are less well addressed. However there’s a reason it, justifiably made waves. We need better conversations and options surrounding women across the board and Lean In really has opened up the conversation in the second decade of the 21st century with a bang.