Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook who urged us to “lean in,” is now teaming up with others asking us not to call girls “bossy” in her “Ban Bossy” campaign. To a certain extent, the sentiment makes sense, because studies have shown that the same behaviors that get called leadership in men are called bossy (or worse) in women. On the flip side, the blogosphere is alight with people who rightly point out that actually being bossy, whether a boy or a girl, is not the kind of behavior we should encourage in our children.
Aside from the fact that I don’t love the idea of being the language police and telling people what words they can or can’t use, part of the issue of banning a word is that it’s not just gener that leads to women being called bossy. I have scolded one son not to “boss [other sons] around.” If I had a daughter who was doing the same, I doubt I would be doing her any favors holding back that critique. If your playmates find you bossy and unpleasant, it is a safe bet that you won’t have those playmates for long. Now many a child and adolescent who has struggled with being different can testify that the problem may, indeed, lie with the playmates, not the child. Perhaps many women who find themselves as the lone woman in the boardroom feel the same. But to categorically say that other people’s negative perceptions of our behavior ought not to influence it, is quite another thing.
Much like the line between confidence and arrogance, the line between bossiness and leadership may be in the eye of the beholder. But it isn’t only gender that matters. I suspect that many people who are leaders are also, at times, bossy. The same son who has been scolded at home for being bossy was described as a “natural leader” at our parent-teacher conference. And I do not believe it is the same behavior described differently. I think the same tendency (assertiveness?) can, at different times, present as bossiness or leadership. The great struggle for each person is to avoid the former and reach for the latter. Having feedback when the behavior veers into bossiness seems, to me, a good thing in this struggle to reach for leadership.
For a boy, the opposite of “bossy” might be “leader,” which is the critique we intend to deliver. But it is possible that for girls, the opposite of “bossy” is… “supportive”? I struggle to think of female role models that girls might see as exhibiting leadership but not bossiness. Show me a female leader and I’ll show you tons of people (not just men) who find her polarizing or bitchy or bossy or any number of negative adjectives. One doesn’t get to be a leader without being, at some point, bossy and the idea that you can be seamlessly a leader without veering into the unsavory aspects (always confident, never arrogant) seems to me unlikely. It seems the demure supportive wife in the wings is the best role model girls have as the opposite of “bossy.” The strong woman behind the famous man. The woman who is respectful, selfless, and a good team player. The woman who is definitely not bossy, but also not a visible leader, at least not one that would ever upstage her male partner.
My “bossiness”/leadership has been a consistent part of who I am and I am always trying to avoid the former and reach for the latter. I don’t know that if I’m being bossy it’s helpful not to tell me so, but the issue is that the same behavior by men and women is viewed differently. This is why I think actually banning the word “bossy” isn’t good, but on the flip side perhaps the discussion this campaign has generated is the best part. It’s not that we shouldn’t call someone out on unsavory behavior, but increasing our own awareness that we perceive that behavior differently depending on the sex of the person exhibiting it is a good thing. It should give us pause every time we describe someone as “bossy,” whether they happen to be male or female, and perhaps work to show them what we see as its opposite.