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Discuss: The Battle Over Bossy

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.

I feel about ‘bossy,’ the same way I feel about ‘bitch’.  I don’t want to ban it.  I want to own it.  To that end, I asked Sarah from Sweetsonian to make this little number for my desk.




  1. M. says:

    Thank you. This is exactly how I felt. After being called bossy all my life, it’s part of how I define myself. It shaped who I am. Of course it makes me consider how others perceive me, but I think that has been a benefit. I’d rather be bossy than “kind” or “helpful” any day.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  2. Usha says:

    My friend Chrissann wrote a similar post in response to the campaign – https://www.ducklingsinarow.com/2014/03/im-not-bossy-im-boss.html#more

    Let’s embrace it, own it and do everything we can to close the gap

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  3. Terri says:

    I appreciate the attempt to “ban bossy” but the other perspectives are more on point. The issue is complex and entrenched in social moray. I hope we continue to move toward the positive role of effective leaders of quality no matter what their gender. We truly are in need of such leadership.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  4. Sara says:

    Thanks for your insight on this debate. I was never called “bossy” but I have been called emotional, irrational, and reactive and you’re right– all of them have felt like an insult to me. I own my emotional self– it means I am sentimental and I care. I own being irrational because it’s worse not to say what you need to say. Being justified and heard feels better than being right. And reacting to things instead of acting has helped me understand the difference. The key will always be to be comfortable with yourself, no matter what other people think of you. It’s a tough lesson that probably a lot of us are still learning, but it’s a better strategy to cope with than social media campaigns that seek to change culture. Not that it isn’t important to increase awareness, of course, but this might be a more valuable lesson to teach young girls instead of making them aware of things that are being said about them that “shouldn’t.”

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  5. Sasha says:

    Where can I get a print like yours? I must have one for me, my sister, and her daughter (my niece)!
    Seriously, I love this print and the sentiment it evokes. Thank you!

    March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Mo says:


      March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I need to talk to Sarah, but we may be doing something with this soon. Stay Tuned.

      March 14, 2014/Reply
      • Jenn says:

        I also look forward to this!

        March 14, 2014/Reply
  6. AG says:

    I haven’t seen this movement about being about this one word as it is about raising awareness about the issue generally and all the insulting buzz words used to define confident, powerful women that would never be uttered about men.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Charlotte L. says:

      THIS. I believe that Sheryl’s point is that while maybe you, Belle, or me, or Sheryl, or many of your readers were able to rise above the negativity, many young girls unfortunately aren’t able to and discouraged from leadership positions from a young age by adults who frankly should know better. The point is that sending young girls the message that by showing leadership qualities they will be seen as unlikeable to their peers is damaging to them and to our society.

      While I see your point with “own bossy,” or “bitch is the new black,” I don’t see how that sentiment and “ban bossy” are mutually exclusive. I own being called aggressive, a bitch, bossy, and other things that my brother was never called and my male coworkers will never be called. But I think just because I’ve had to do that doesn’t mean my future daughter should.

      I think we all can agree on your last point that at least we’re talking about this. I wish they had come up with a better tagline (“Ban Bossy!” does have a whiny tone to it that I just can’t shake).

      March 14, 2014/Reply
      • Belle says:

        I don’t think they’re exclusive. Like I said, I see real value in the discussion she’s created. And I too hope our daughters have fewer problems than we did.

        March 14, 2014/Reply
  7. DontBlameTheKids says:

    My mother used to say to me, any time I started something new, “Isn’t that a little competitive? Wouldn’t you rather just….”

    Yes, let’s own it. Because no, I wouldn’t rather *just* anything.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  8. Gabriele says:

    When I was a little girl, my mom called me “Ms. Bossy Boots” affectionately, so I’ve never felt stigmatized by it. And when people say I’m intense, I shrug and agree. I am intense. That’s how I got through a top 25 university and a top 30 law school before I turned 25. That being said, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to discourage use of language that can and likely does discourage girls from speaking up and being leaders.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  9. GL says:

    The intent to encourage young girls to be leaders is awesome. Just because a woman is a leading, that shouldn’t make her “bossy” automatically. However, I have a problem with banning the word (or most words for that matter). I think it misses the point, which is that we need to be using the word bossy correctly not banning it.

    Bossy is a valid description for someone (male or female) who leads badly, usually for the pleasure of power or dominating.

    Again, women should be encouraged to become leaders but I don’t think honing in on the word bossy is the way to do it.

    If a manager is being an overly domineering and poor leader, I think it would be fair to call them out as bossy — female or male (obviously using specific reasons why). But if this manager happens to be a woman, critics are suddenly labeled as “anti-feminist”.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
    • AG says:

      But how often does someone use “bossy” to describe a man? That’s the problem.

      March 14, 2014/Reply
      • GL says:

        How is it a problem that males are never described as bossy? If a male manager is being over-domineering and negative words are used to described him, then I don’t see the problem. Similarly, I have no problem with an over-domineering female manager being called “bossy” or any other appropriate negative adjective.

        The problem is that bossy needs to be used correctly, that is that not applied to every female leader. It seems bossy has a female connotation. Personally I’m okay with that as long as the term is reserved for actually over-domineering managers and their male counterparts are equally criticized negatively for it. As long as it’s equal treatment, I see the rest as semantics.

        March 15, 2014/Reply
  10. GL says:

    Just wanted to add to my previous comment, I would much prefer if the campaign had a more positive focus like bringing more awareness to other words like “assertive” or that “leader” doesn’t have to be associated with masculinity, etc. It seems like campaigns like these are always condemning a new word, which I think is a semantics argument and not necessarily effective at encourage young kids.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Mary says:

      Agreed. Changing the mindset overall will go farther than banning a particular word.

      March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I agree with both of you, changing the mindset should be the end goal. I think the campaign will do a lot to get people talking about how to do that, and that has real value. But I think the mindset changes faster if the hateful words lose their power to control behavior, than if they go away or become “bad words”.

      March 14, 2014/Reply
  11. Mary Tong-Lee says:

    Wait, let me try to wrap my head around this – you like being called a “bitch”? And you think this is moving society in a good direction?

    Are you going to “own” “c*nt”, too?

    I vehemently disagree that justifying slang and derogatory, demeaning or marginalizing terms is an beneficial to anyone.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      I’m not justifying the use of such words. But when it comes to the word bitch, I’m on Tina Fey’s team: Bitch is the new black. I’m not going to allow the angry words of others have power over me. I’m going to take their hateful words and turn them into fuel to power me forward. Detractors and name-callers may seek to marginalize me, but I’m not going to let them, so when someone calls me a bitch, I look them right in the eye and say, “How sweet of you! That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

      You want to push society forward, teach little girls that people say mean things. They shouldn’t, but they do. And that instead of letting those mean things hurt you and break you down, you should take a moment to look inside yourself and say, “You know what, I work hard, I try hard, I matter, and you can call me whatever the hell you want, because I define myself, not you.”

      March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Katey says:

      You’re lecturing Belle about moving society in a “good direction” so you bust out the c-word? Just pull the discussion into the gutter, why don’t you.

      March 14, 2014/Reply
  12. Phyllis says:

    OWN it! 🙂

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  13. Larissa says:

    I really think “ball-buster” falls in line with bossy and bitch. While we’re at it – “control-freak”? Nobody ever calls a man a control-freak. At least in the same context.

    The Time article you referenced was good too — even down to mentioning a woman’s attire etc. I read another article recently about kids being adopted — how you shouldn’t call them adopted (unless relevant to the story). The same goes for attire, appearance, race, religion, etc. etc. Bossy isn’t needed to describe anything when related to power or success, I say.

    The Bechdel test needs to be employed by everyone.

    This is a great project (by Gavin Newsom’s wife – did I fail my own test by associating her with her husband?) — it really spells it out. We need to change how we think of gender roles and how we portray women AND men.

    The first two videos are especially good.


    March 14, 2014/Reply
  14. Amy says:

    I haven’t read all the comments, so this is probably a duplicate, but thank you for this Belle! I’m concerned that this is going to make it ok for girls to be mean, and also, why would you put the word you don’t want used in the title of the campaign?!

    And LOVE the graphic!

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  15. Jenny says:

    I really enjoy your Friday posts. Thanks for providing such great food for thought.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  16. Allison says:

    I am a manager at a Fortune 200 company, and last week during my performance appraisal my boss’s only contructive criticism was that I am “too bossy”. I wanted to launch into a tirade about this campaign (banbossy) but I decided to take a deep breath and ask clarifying questions about what he was getting at. (Yes, my boss is male.) What he really meant was that I need to work on my soft skills, actually connect with the people I work with, and have more converastions in person.

    I think this is very true, “Drexler also believes that banning the word encourages women to focus on victimization instead of success.” I could have been a victim, but at the end of the day by boss is not sexist, he has my best intentions at heart, and he regularly stands up for me and ensures that I get credit for my work.

    Honestly I think he just said the wrong thing. My girl friends were outraged and wanted me to call him into HR, but at the end of the day I don’t think that’s what’s going to get me to the top of the ladder.

    I am NOT saying that everyone should respond like I did, but I know my boss very well and I know he isn’t a sexist jerk trying to keep me down.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      While I take no umbrage at being called bossy or bitch or anything else really, except maybe stupid, I’d take serious offense to that, it’s important to understand why people use the words they do. Sometimes there are valid opinions buried under their sexism and derision. Take what merit you find to foster professional growth, and learn to leave the rest behind.

      March 14, 2014/Reply
  17. SB says:

    Where can I get one of those for my desk? Love it, and completely agree with you on this. And I think many women of Washington are in the exact same boat.

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  18. Jenn says:

    You are my blogger hero. Preach!

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  19. Cindi says:

    I’m 57 and have worked in a male dominated industry for my entire career. I have been at a management level for 20+ years, and things were far different when I started out. For years, I was the only woman at meetings. There has been a lot of change in my lifetime, but we are not done yet. I must say I love the concept of OWNING the words bitch and bossy. And in a phrase from my generation, to Belle and all of you awesome women – KEEP THE FAITH! [and the context is not religious in nature – I would not presume to comment on religion]

    March 14, 2014/Reply
  20. Spirit mom says:

    I can’t stand bossy, bitchy, ball-busting women! I see them as completely arrogant and refusing to ever think they are wrong. You can be a strong, confident, and assertive without those traits. Be gracious, ladies, it will take you much further!

    March 14, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      Because it’s completely impossible that confidence could be mistaken for bossiness or arrogance. And it’s totally unreasonable to believe that maybe, just maybe, a woman doesn’t have to be just one thing. Maybe a gracious person could be consider bossy or bitchy or ball-busting as well depending on the person, the situation, the audience. I think the point of the campaign is to “ban” the word because it’s not always reflective of reality, and most of the time, words like that are used to verbally punish women for behaving in a way that other people find unladylike…as if women should always conform to other people’s wishes.

      March 15, 2014/Reply
  21. s says:

    it’s weird, nobody’s ever called me bossy really — maybe a “natural leader” — although i feel like i’ve been walking the line between “bossy” and “assertive” forever. the annoying thing is that i tried to downplay my ‘assertiveness’ for several years, to the detriment of my career. as far as i’m concerned, being bossy is the only way to go. so even though i don’t know if i’m really bossy or not, i’m super on board with this idea.

    March 15, 2014/Reply
  22. Renee says:

    I was an Officer in the Army and the best advice I received my first year on the job was, “you will be labeled a pushover or a bitch, choose bitch.” It is unfortunate that a man and woman can perform the same in a leadership role and most consider the man to be a natural leader and the woman to be a bossy bitch who is used to getting her way.

    March 15, 2014/Reply
  23. Kate says:

    You sat bitch like it’s a bad thing! A true leader is not in the spot light, but rather, in the audience clapping. Leaders should lead, guide, and inspire. No need to be bossy or bitchy. Strong and assertive while leading your team so, they will support you and their team. Just do it!

    March 15, 2014/Reply
    • Kate says:

      Say not sat.

      March 15, 2014/Reply
  24. Mel says:

    Thanks Belle. I’ve owned “bossy” my whole life. It’s nice to know I’m not alone.

    March 17, 2014/Reply
  25. Kathleen Lisson says:

    I have noticed over the years that there is a predictable backlash against any forward movement by feminists in the United States. So I am not surprised by this ‘backlash.’

    I think the point of concern is how little girls react when they are called ‘bossy.’ It is harder to ask a girl to ‘own bossy’ when she is trying to figure herself out. I don’t think this fight is for adult women as much as it is for girls. What do they see, what do they hear and how is it affecting them?

    March 19, 2014/Reply
    • Belle says:

      That’s an excellent point.

      March 19, 2014/Reply
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