Why #BanBossy Is Flawed At Best And Potentially Harmful

Catching up on my feeds after two days at home with Malcolm, it was nice see so many people backing the Sheryl Sandbergs’s (COO of Facebook) attempt to ban the word bossy as a descriptor for girls and women. It was nice to see it because I was immediately reminded of how many people will jump right on the bandwagon of ANY campaign that features a few celebrities and purports to help someone – without applying a milliseconds of real thought to the notion.

These little reminders of how the herd doesn’t think, really do brighten my day. Seriously, they do!

“We need to recognize the many ways we systematically discourage leadership in girls from a young age — and instead, we need to encourage them,” Sandberg said in a statement. “So the next time you have the urge to call your little girl bossy? Take a deep breath and praise her leadership skills instead.”

This would be so much easier to get behind if the words bossy, pushy or stubborn applied only to girls, so let’s make a few things abundantly clear here:

  • Bossy is gender neutral. It applies to applies to male of the species just as much as it applies to the female. It also applies to cats. If you don’t believe me, then come hangout at my house for a while and Daenerys will give you an education.
  • Bossy does not necessarily equate to  leadership, or any quality whatsoever that you may want in a confident, assertive leader. In my experience the people who tend to deserve the title bossy (both male and female) tend to be poor leaders and are using being over-assertive to hide their own weaknesses or lack of skills / knowledge / insight.

The blurb for the Ban Bossy website reads:

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” 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. Together we can encourage girls to lead.

Um.. NO! This is being over-simplified and deliberately whitewashed.

When a little boy asserts himself, he’s not usually called a leader, it’s more “head strong” or “single minded”, and other things. When he over asserts himself, or displays a need to control everything, he’s called “bossy” or “cocksure”.

Depending on the vocabulary of those doing the describing, he may even be called any of the following – arrogant, conceited, overconfident, cocky, proud, vain, self-important, egotistical, smug, patronizing, pompous, controlling. I know I was certainly called all of those growing up (and worse), and deservedly so.

If he’s a particularly unpleasant bossy person, he may even be referred to as a “bully” (usually deservedly), or worse.

Girls face little difference, except for being called “cocksure”. I’m pretty sure nobody has ever deliberately referred to a girl as being cocksure.

Being bossy isn’t always about being a leader. Being bossy can more often be about getting your own way, or covering up your insecurities and as such it should be pointed out as being a character or attitude flaw. If I’m being bossy then I should be told I’m being bossy. Being bossy is not always good – I can be an assertive, confident leader without being bossy. Great bosses can exist without being bossy – I’ve met and worked for them.

It’s 2014. We’re all supposed to be about equality for all, regardless of race, orientation or gender – right? So why are we going out of way to sugar-coat reality for one gender. If we’re going to do it, shouldn’t we do it for both genders? And if we do that, how do we address the fact that some people simply are bossy and need to be called on it? How far does this sugar-coating go?

How do we teach girls and boys alike that being bossy isn’t necessarily the right approach, how do we explain it if we ban the words, and how do we shape their character without the harshness of reality and being able to call a spade a spade?

And the first person who says “lead by example” is getting a swift kick the groin! Some personality types simply don’t respond to watching what others do – and we’re banning all the words to explain the difference!?!

Protecting our kids doesn’t mean sugar-coating the universe for them. The truth is that “Daddies little princess” isn’t a princess, and “Mommies little man” isn’t just a little controlling, he’s acting like an a-hole because you let him and both of you need to be called on it.

Just because you didn’t like being called out when you were being over-assertive, doesn’t mean that you have to protect your kids from your imagined slights. How is any child ever supposed to build character, or grow up to be a well rounded adult, in this over-protective world which is dominated by the opinions of the self-involved, insecure, overly politically correct, helicopter parent?

Dear god, when is the “everyone is a special snowflake” bullshit going to stop?

But I’m just a bloke! What do I know about the realities that girls face growing up?

Lets ask Mollie Hemingway:

For crying out loud. Has anyone been near a public school classroom recently? I have never in my life ever heard anyone call an assertive little boy a “leader.” There are probably few places more hostile to any male behavior of any kind than our oversensitive, girl-centric classrooms. If a little boy asserts himself in the classroom, he’s sent to the principal.

Yes, there are some slurs that girls face more than boys as they mature. But many of the ones dudes get — I’m thinking of a**hole and d*****bag and what not — deal specifically with being too assertive. Where’s their campaign?

Or Micheline Maynard at Forbes 

I’ve got news for her: there are far worse things for women than being called bossy. And, I don’t think banning bossy does much to help young girls, either.

For one, bossy isn’t only a word that applies to women. It’s gender neutral. There are plenty of bossy men out there, too. Bossy is bossy — dictatorial, unyielding, telling people what to do and expecting them to do it without any input.

Bossy is not the same thing as being a leader, even though Sandberg might view it that way. Leadership is an entirely different category. There are bosses who are leaders, and bosses who are bossy. We’ve all worked for them. We know the difference.

Or Jessica Gardner:

Let me be clear, I am not in favor of shaming or bullying anyone. I believe it’s imperative that we build girls (and boys) up every chance we get. And I hate the words bossy and “Little Miss Bossy” and “bossy pants” and many other derivatives of all of it. I hate them partly because once upon a time, they were used to describe me.

But here’s what gets me. We cannot simply replace “bossy” with “leader.” They are not synonymous.

Or Alexandra Petri of the Washington Post:

I’m all for encouraging girls to lead. What do we think society is, a waltz? Of course women should be leading. Get them in the room solving the problems.

But adding another word to the list of Things Too Hurtful To Say isn’t the way to do it.

Sandbergs heart is in the right place – it really is. But, (there’s always a but) banning words simply because we don’t like them is going about things in completely the wrong way.

Lets’ not start by criminalizing words, or by projecting our insecurities onto our gender, friends, or kids.

Let’s teach our children to be leaders. Let’s teach them to be compassionate. To know when to be assertive and when to be supportive and nurturing. Let’s teach them that steamrolling everyone is not the most effective way of getting people to do what you want, and that understanding their own shortcomings and limitations are paramount to being a good leader. Let’s teach them to accept criticism and make something productive of it, and not project their dislike of it onto others.

Let’s also realize that not everyone is going to be a leader, and that no matter how much we educate or lead by example, some people will always be bossy arseholes when given a little bit of power – that’s probably how they got it in the first place.

Oh, and let’s call a spade a spade.

Comments

  1. says

    YES! Just wrote a few thoughts on this (well, yesterday…) on bosssanders.com. I’m SO with you on this one. On a related note… I am SO. TIRED. of hearing about how the word bossy (or another word) RUINED THEIR PRECIOUS LIVES. Truth is… if a word like bossy “ruined” your life… it’s because you let it. And, even had that word been banned, surely another would’ve done the same.

    Thanks for writing this!

    • says

      It was my cathartic pleasure to write it Ashley :D If a word can ruin your life then you have bigger issues I think. Words are just that.. words. The only power words have is what you give them, and if you ban one, then another will crop up..