Recently, Sheryl Sandberg–she of Lean In fame–launched a campaign to ban the word ‘bossy’. Sandberg believes that fear of being labeled ‘bossy’ is the main reason why young girls lose confidence and stop striving to be leaders. She argues that we can improve the culture for the next generation of women by halting the easy use of the word.
The Ban Bossy campaign is endorsed by the Girl Scouts of America and a whole cast of notable and famous people. But soon after it launched, people started asking if #banbossy was missing the point.
Sheila Moeschen, senior editor at Huffington Post, calls the campaign “Sandberg’s latest attempt to reduce a complex cultural dynamic into a hashtag friendly slogan.” Psychologist Peggy Drexler questions Sandberg’s premise, that girls are being “discouraged into meekness.” Drexler also believes that banning the word encourages women to focus on victimization instead of success. And writer Ann Handley asks if we aren’t sending the wrong message by telling girls that being bossy and being a leader are the same thing.
In response to the campaign’s critics, Jessica Bennett, a former Newsweek editor, responded with an article titled “11 Ways to Avoid Sounding Like a Sexist Jerk (Even If You’re a Woman).” In it, she discusses the power of words that are used to label women and the ways in which those words can damage a woman’s reputation, self-esteem or career prospects.
So how do I feel about banning the word ‘bossy’?
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever met me (or read this blog) that ‘bossy’ was the word most often used to describe my playground-aged self. As I got older, the word of choice became ‘intense,’ or that other b-word, ‘bitch.’
There are hundreds of words that people use to put women in their place. Ambitious, difficult, emotional–anything can sound like a curse word if you say it with enough gusto. But sometimes your detractors won’t use a single adjective to deflate you.
Instead, they’ll earnestly advise you to “set your sights lower,” be “more deferent,” or “accept” that you may not have what it takes to succeed in your field. All of these were things said to me by teachers, employers and mentors. The vast majority of these comments would never have been made if I was in possession of a Y-chromosome.
I think that #banbossy is well-intentioned, and that there are many valid perspectives on the campaign. I also think that Sandberg has done feminism a service by spurring meaningful discussion about the achievement/leadership gap. But focusing on a single word isn’t the best way to teach young girls how to persevere in the face of intense pressure to step out of the spotlight and into the perceived safety of the shadows.