Like many three-year-old girls, mine takes her fashion cues from Disney films. So when a family member recently gave her a dress that looked as though Snow White had had an unfortunate run-in with Tinkerbell, she insisted on wearing it immediately. Seconds after donning this fashion abomination, she started complaining that the dress wasn’t working. She turned to look at her wings while jumping up and down, puzzled that she couldn’t fly. Then it struck me: No one had ever told her that, even with the right outfit, flying just isn’t an option.
Most children only know their limitations when the adults in their life set them. This may help to explain the popularity of the notion that the language we use around children, and girls in particular, needs to be carefully scripted in order to ensure they remain open to all the leadership possibilities available to boys, and later, men.
To that end, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts of the USA chief executive officer Anna Maria Chavez launched a campaign to ban the word “bossy.” On one hand, these activists have a point: Language remains a powerful weapon that shapes the way we see each other and ourselves, and according to the Ban Bossy website, the term is rarely used to describe boys.
In a recent interview with Parade, Ms. Sandberg suggested that instead of describing assertive girls as bossy, parents should try saying they have “executive leadership skills.”
The Ban Bossy campaign, unsurprisingly, spawned numerous reactions in the blogosphere, many by successful women who recall – somewhat fondly – being labelled as bossy in their youth. If we define bossy as being assertive and in control, rather than being a bully, then the behaviour has only served the girls and women I know well.
Jacqueline Baptist, a marketing executive in Toronto, said she was one of those little girls who took on a leadership role in every group and was shocked when in Grade 4 she overheard a classmate say “she’s so bossy” in a less-than-admiring tone.
“Getting people organized, figuring out what everyone’s best contribution could be – how could that anything but good?” Ms. Baptist recalled thinking. While she agrees that society often deems certain attributes positive for men and negative for women, she coaches her nieces to embrace their bossy side and hopes her eight-year-old son finds a “bossy woman to fall in love with.” Bossy, she explained, means being effective.
Although I admire the intent behind the Ban Bossy movement, there are two major flaws with the initiative. Most important, bossy, in the traditional negative sense, is no longer viewed as a leadership trait. The command-and-control approach to management faded away years ago in favour of one that relies more heavily on emotional intelligence.
The second issue comes down to this incredible burden we place on parents, who seem to be told that not following the correct script when raising their children can lead to irreparable damage. The list of harmful words out there that threaten to sting young girls and boys alike never ends, and adding another “B-word” to the banned list seems like another trap for parents already navigating a gender intelligence minefield. Common sense must prevail.
Despite the backlash to the Ban Bossy campaign – Globe columnist Margaret Wente recently told girls to “suck it up” – it’s important to recognize that a dedicated camp applauds the initiative, including former U.S. secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, and a list of celebrities such as Beyoncé.
“I do see a value [in the Ban Bossy campaign], as simplistic as the concept may be,” explained Annette Bergeron, president of the Toronto-based licensing body Professional Engineers Ontario. In a nod to Ms. Wente’s column, Ms. Bergeron complained that she has been “sucking it up for 30 years” and wants a better environment for her daughter.
Ms. Bergeron kept the report card her kindergarten teacher wrote in 1969 that chided her for being “a bit bossy at times.” She wonders how much she unconsciously toned down her leadership style after being labelled bossy as a child and compares the statement to one by her favourite boss, who last year described her as quiet, thoughtful, and strategic but not an A-type personality who pounds her fist on the table.
Language is powerful – but banning another word from our lexicon is at best a token solution, and at worst misguided. I wish that banning the other B-word would result in improved self-worth for girls everywhere but that simply wouldn’t be the case. Instead, let’s celebrate fabulously bossy girls and the independent thinkers they turn into as young women. I, for one, plan on encouraging the bossy girls in my life, even if that means they wear ridiculous fairy outfits to school every day.
Leah Eichler is founder of r/ally, a mobile collaboration platform for enterprises. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org