Why ban the word ‘bossy’ when you can own it?
So, Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t like the word ‘bossy’. The Facebook COO explained why in an op-ed piece she recently co-authored with Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez for the Wall Street Journal. The word ‘bossy’, she wrote, is used disparagingly to describe girls who exhibit leadership qualities, while the boys who lead are described as ‘strong’ and ‘determined’.
Sandberg herself grew up being called ‘bossy’ and the use of that adjective made her feel bad about herself. So, she is now using the might of her non-profit organization Leanin.org to push for a ban on the use of that word so that girls like her can grow up feeling better about themselves.
To put her message out to the world, Sandberg also recorded a video starring such female role models as Condoleezza Rice, Diane Von Furstenberg, Jennifer Garner and Jane Lynch. This public service announcement ends with musical megastar Beyonce staring into camera and saying, “I’m not bossy. I am the boss.”
Well, in that case, just what is so wrong about being called ‘bossy’? All it really means is ‘like a boss’. So, why treat it like a dirty word? You can bet that if young boys were called ‘bossy’ they would wear the label like a badge of pride and not treat it like an insult. Why should young girls, then, treat it as some of sort of slur?
Words do matter. But what matters more is what we make of them. Treat the word ‘bossy’ as if it was an insult and soon it will come to mean just that. Accept it as a compliment and it will soon become one.
There is this one episode in Friends that comes to mind. Monica is complaining to Pheobe about how her mother makes her feel bad about herself. Every time I do something wrong, she explains, my mother calls it ‘pulling a Monica’. Well, why don’t you change that, asks Pheobe. The next time you do something right, call that ‘pulling a Monica’.
That’s exactly what we should be doing with words like ‘bossy’. We should be embracing them as something positive, a validation of our leadership skills, rather than a negative comment on our assertiveness.
Sandberg clearly doesn’t see it that way. For her and Rachel Thomas, co-founder of Leanin.org, the use of the word signals the beginning of a slippery slope. “We too were called bossy as girls,” they write, “Decades later, the word still stings and we remember the sentiments it evoked: Keep your voice down. Don’t raise your hand. Don’t take the lead. If you do, people won’t like you…As girls become women, the childhood b-word – bossy – is replaced by the b-word adult women face – along with aggressive, angry and too ambitious. The words change but their impact doesn’t. Women are less well liked when they lead, and all of us are affected.”
Aha, see, right there is the problem. And it’s not the word ‘bossy’. It is the fact that women want to be ‘liked when they lead’. Men, on the other hand, don’t give a damn about how much they are liked or disliked so long as they get to lead. And that, in itself, gives them an enormous advantage over their female counterparts. On one hand, you have a gender that has a take-no-prisoners attitude when it comes to wielding power. On the other, or so Sandberg would have us believe, is a gender that is so fragile that just the use of a single adjective is enough to make its members curl up and die.
It is this sub-text that I find truly troubling: that even powerful, successful, ambitious achievers like Sheryl Sandberg feel the need to treat young girls like fragile flowers who must be protected from the hails and storms of a misogynistic world. And the belief that women are somehow still wary of taking the lead on things because they fear being seen as less feminine and more of a threat.
The only thing that gives me cause for optimism is that I suspect little girls are not half as fragile as Sandberg seems to think. Well, let’s take Sandberg’s own case. She tells us that she grew up being called bossy, and those memories still hurt. And maybe they do. But take a good look at her now: the little girl who grew up being called ‘bossy’ is the woman who’s now the big boss at Facebook. So, what harm did that b-word do to her? None, as far as I can see.
I suppose this is where I confess that I grew up being called ‘bossy’ as well. And, truth be told, I still have the b-word thrown at me by most of my friends and family. Does it hurt? Not a bit. Would I like it banned? Not a chance. I would much rather own it.