I recently read an article which outlined the launch of a new campaign to ban the word “bossy” from the playground. Sheryl Sandberg, the author of the book Lean In, contends that the word “bossy” is a put-down that stops girls from pursuing leadership roles. “We know that by middle school, more boys than girls want to lead,” Sandberg said, “and if you ask girls why they don’t want to lead, whether it’s the school project all the way on to running for office, they don’t want to be called bossy, and they don’t want to be disliked.”
Reading this article brought back some hurtful memories. As a little girl I remember coming home in tears after my neighborhood friend called me “bossy.” My mother attempted to console my pain by suggesting that I quit playing with my friend. This advice did not stick nor was this the last time I was called “bossy.” I can honestly say I do not recall what I did that resulted in being called “bossy,” only that this name calling made me feel disliked.
It has been my experience that “bossy” is a label more readily assigned to girls versus boys. Girls who are prone to taking charge or giving orders may be referred to as “bossy.” Yet is seems that boys with these same behaviors are labeled as assertive. I think most would agree that girls are raised differently than boys; this includes how girls are socialized. As a young girl I remember being given instruction on how to act like a lady. I clearly remember directions on how to sit like a lady. This for me was never natural! I also remember directions to play “nice” or be a “nice girl.” The direction to “be nice” infers an expectation of getting along with others and being polite. This makes me wonder, can a nice girl also be bossy?
I would assert that nice girls can be bossy. Each one of us assigns labels to behaviors. Most labels include either a positive or negative spin. Bossy definitely infers negativity as it carries with it the idea of wanting things your own way, while being assertive is seen as positive because it infers standing up for what you believe. So who determined that bossiness is bad and assertiveness is good? We did. I would contend that these two labels reference a very similar behavior, yet our response to these behaviors is where the difference lies. Bossiness we will try to curb, while assertiveness we encourage.
Maybe the idea of banning the word “bossy” would have an impact. I worry however that “bossy” will instead be replaced with another negative label. This makes me think that a better solution is to celebrate girls for who they are as leaders and for what they can offer. This means that we spend less time worrying that boys are seen differently or given different opportunities than girls, and instead we focus our energies on encouraging our girls to lead from their own strengths. A compassionate girl can lead from a place of empathy in which all are included. A creative girl can lead by arriving at new solutions and encouraging others to take risks. And a willful girl can lead from a place of tenacity and therefore will never give up.