I was a typical first-born girl – precocious, bright and bossy. I enjoyed being in charge. At an early age, I persuaded my younger brother to trade bedrooms so that he would share with our little sister and I would get his bedroom to myself. When he hesitated, I sat on him and smothered him until he said yes.
In Grade 7, I got scolded in ballroom dancing class because I couldn’t stop leading. And so it went. I was a bossy little girl, no doubt about it. (The term “obnoxious” also comes to mind.) But we aren’t supposed to say the word “bossy” any more. It makes girls feel bad. It destroys their fragile self-esteem and discourages them from being more assertive.
The campaign to ban “bossy” (I am not making this up) was launched by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, author of the wildly bestselling Lean In, a guide to business success for the female top 1 per cent. The fear of being labelled “bossy,” she argues, has a real impact on girls’ lives, because it encourages them to sit down and shut up. “We, too, were called bossy as girls,” Ms. Sandberg and campaign co-founder Rachel Thomas wrote on LinkedIn. “Decades later, the word still stings, and we still 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.”
Ms. Sandberg has enlisted Beyoncé, the Girl Scouts, Victoria Beckham and Condoleezza Rice in the anti-bossy cause, which she kicked off with a round of media appearances and a piece in The Wall Street Journal. The campaign is trying to revive the notion that society is systematically silencing girls because of oppressive stereotyping. As the Guardian’s Jill Filipovic wrote approvingly, “Calling girls ‘bossy,’ and the whole universe of gendered socialization that comes along with it profoundly impacts behaviour, cognition and perception.”
Ms. Sandberg’s website, banbossy.com, does its best to revive the notion that girls, unlike boys, suffer a crisis of self-confidence as they approach adolescence. By high school, it claims, female self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than male self-esteem. There is undoubtedly some truth in this, although I suspect the reasons have more to do with hormones than with gendered socialization. In any event, this crisis does not prevent them from academically out-achieving the boys by quite a wide margin, or from asserting themselves in sports, volunteer work and student government, or from flooding the medical, law and business schools, or from out-earning their husbands. These days, it’s not the girls who need a leg up. It’s the boys.
So instead of trying to ban pejorative words for girls (What’s next – “tattletale”?), here’s another way to go: Help them learn to overcome adversity and suck it up. For example, Ms. Sandberg seems to have overcome “bossy” and soldiered on – to say nothing of Beyoncé and Ms. Rice.
Any girl who’s smart and assertive learns at some point that not everyone is going to like her. This is a valuable life lesson, and there are two ways to respond. Play dumb, or find people who appreciate smart, assertive girls, and spend more time hanging out with them.
That’s what my friend Sarah did. She got the top mark in Grade 11 trigonometry. It was the worst day of her life. Instead of congratulating her, the teacher told the boys he was ashamed of them for letting a girl beat them. She was humiliated. But she picked herself up and got the top mark the next time, too. She went on to succeed in a male-dominated field where men don’t always appreciate assertive women, and raised two successful and assertive daughters. “They were very bossy girls,” she says happily.
So let’s not ban bossy. Let’s reclaim it, like Tina Fey, who wrote her book Bossypants as a badge of honour. And let’s stop treating girls as fragile flowers who will wilt and fade under the least amount of stress. Real leaders of both genders need thick skins. And “bossy” is by no means the worst name they can call you.