Is Bossy the New "B" Word? Should it be Banned?

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Should the word 'bossy' be banned? (wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Sheryl Sandberg is tired of the word "bossy," so much so that she's launching a campaign against it.

Sandberg says "the other B-word" discourages girls from thinking of themselves in positions of leadership.

So together with Girl Scouts of America, she's kicking off the Ban Bossy Project, and recruiting high profile women like Condoleeza Rice, Diane von Furstenberg and Jane Lynch as spokeswomen for the cause.

"Bossy is one of the many ways we discourage little girls from leading," Sandberg told NPR's All Things Considered. "When a little boy leads it's expected, we applaud him. But when girls lead, we call them bossy, we tell them not to, we tell them to put down their hands. We do this in very explicit ways and implicit ways. The research shows that by middle school more boys than girls want to lead."

The challenges of being a female boss are complicated. In her memoir "Bossy Pants," comedian and actress Tina Fey addresses this very issue:

"Ever since I became an executive producer of '30 Rock,' people have asked me, 'Is it hard for you, being the boss?' and 'Is it uncomfortable for you to be the person in charge?' You know, in the same way they say, 'Gosh, Mr. Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?' I can't answer for Mr. Trump, but in my case it is not," writes Fey. "I've learned a lot over the years of what it means to be the boss of people. Contrary to what I believed as a little girl, being the boss almost never involves marching around, waving your arms, and chanting, 'I am the boss! I am the boss!'"

But is it so much the word "bossy," or the way we teach young girls to think about themselves and their roles as leaders and empowerment?

Joining The Takeaway to weigh in are Sarah Burningham, author of "Girl to Girl: Honest Talk About Growing Up and Your Changing Body" and two other books for teen girls, and Micki Maynard, contributor to Forbes.com and the former Detroit bureau chief for our partner The New York Times.

"Targeting a single word is generally not a good idea—it adds power to that word," says Burningham. "I think making it forbidden for people almost means it's likely to be used more frequently, and I think it then has more meaning so it's more likely to hurt when it's used. Although I don't personally love the word bossy, I don't think it's necessarily a bad word."

Would banning the word bossy in an adult workplace even have an affect on female leadership? 

"We have a lot more to worry about as women in the workplace, and as girls, than being called bossy," says Maynard. "I've been called a lot worse and you need the kind of skin to resist being called a lot worse."

Burningham says that while she doesn't support banning the word bossy, she thinks Sandberg's campaign has introduced an important dialogue into our culture about the treatment of women and girls. 

"We need to talk with girls we know about how to handle it when they're called names—especially when they're called names that assertive women are called, like bossy," says Burningham. "Girls have opinions, and if we ask them what their opinions are and we listen to their responses, they're going to be far more confident in how they feel about things because we are hearing them."

While we as a society presumably don't want to deliberately put road blocks in the way of our leaders—men or women—do people need to be tested in handling negativity?

"I don't believe that bossy equals leader, I think leadership is in a completely different category than bossy," says Maynard. "Bossy is bossy. Leadership can be leading a team, it can be collaborative, it can be simply getting everyone's thoughts and then you make a decision. That is decisiveness, that's not bossy. My sense is that we do need to teach young people to lead, period."

While Burningham agrees that bossiness isn't the equivalent of leadership, she also believes that children need to be properly educated on the appropriate ways to respond to negative words like bossy.

"As parents and people who care about them, we can't protect them from that, but we can teach them how to react to it," adds Burningham. "If they're called bossy we can talk to them about what was happening and encourage them to use the skills that are indeed leadership skills."

Watch a video about the Ban Bossy Project below.

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Guests:

Sarah Burningham and Micheline Maynard

Produced by:

Ellen Frankman and Mythili Rao

Editors:

T.J. Raphael

Comments [21]

Duffy Johnson

Even suggesting the prohibition of "bossy" is ludicrous. I'm completely in favor of eliminating the phrase "the takeaway", however. It's lazy jargon and I can't believe NPR named a show for it.

Sep. 09 2014 11:40 AM
Thomas Hutchinson from Charleston, SC

This is absolutely ludicrous and ridiculous. Sound the old adage that actions are louder than words and you might have some progress towards gender equality in the workplace. Targeting words is no different that implementing buzzwords; it's a fruitless effort that allows for people to think they've done something to stop the problem without actually doing anything constructive. If you want to help the problem, empower managers of all genders to lead effectively and promote productive management policy. If you want to pull the wool over your own eyes, ban the word.

Mar. 12 2014 10:41 PM
tom LI

One more thing - you cant teach people, young people in this case, how to lead! Its nigh impossible to do! The place one learns leadership is by the very act of leading. Thats why the military puts men and women in leadership situations and see where they fall-out.

You can be mentored and nurtured while being in the position, but no one can actually teach someone to lead with a class. You gotta try and learn, and re-learn and try and re-learn and try again, etc. But of course mentoring is a seriously lost art/skill in the work-world. Too often the new manager is picked by being the lesser of evils, favoritism, or absolute luck. Then they are tossed into the pool and expected to immediately swim like an Olympian. Because their bosses never learned how, and due to their position think they are actually good managers! The Peter Principle is still an appropriate observation in this matter.

Mar. 12 2014 05:08 PM
tom LI

One problem with this issue is that the term "leader" is NOT the only one used to describe the Aggressive male boss, or co-worker. When we all know there are other terms - usually offensive - used by the staff and sub-management to describe such a males. Pr/ck, d/ck, schmuck, douc/e-bag (Yes ladies that one is rarely ever used towards a female, go figure) jerk-off, plain old sh/t-head, or POS (piece of - ) among so many others. Men don't get a free-pass.

For some reason when women discuss this subject, they never seem to acknowledge this...they all act like the ONLY terms for jerk-off male bosses, or any other male work-mate is Leader, or showing leadership qualities. Which is absurd! Ignoring the reality of this fact undermines the Woman's arguments.

Most men stop listening when women approach this or similar issues this way. Plus men know full well that most men do not support or admire the d/ck's among them! We trash each other as much as women trash other women! And every time I hear the c-word used in the work setting - its from the mouth of a female!

My personal observation is this re; Bosses, supervisors; 1. women think they have to act like men to be the boss and succeed, which usually entails doing all the worst things men do, and ratcheting it up a few notches, or it makes them sound like posers. (ladies FYI, dont call men Bro!) 2. New female bosses, In My Experience, come into the situation like a new chain gang boss, and flex their muscles way to fast and furiously. Men tend to get the lay of the land first, then be the d/ck if they are one. That delay can make a big difference.

The blame here should be on the targets of the terms, not the ones describing them! But of course thats never addressed...instead we're all to adjust and make-nicey-nice with jerk-offs

Mar. 12 2014 04:54 PM
Mark Blumberg from New York

It seems that it may be a better idea to reframe the word bossy through a more positive lens rather than try to censor it out of the language. It is a relatively mild characterization of someone, until, that is, someone comes along and elevates it to the negative power that "the other B-word" may have.

Also, calling someone (and not just little girls are called bossy or something with the same general meaning) bossy isn't implicitly telling them not to lead...it's explicitly telling them not to lead badly. It's keeping them in check within how a person or group wants to be led.

I have no problem with empowering all children with the confidence to be good leaders, as well as with the confidence to be good followers. Let's not coddle our youth into over-sensitive whiners who stomp out of a room at the slightest hint of indignation. Let's teach them to accept the criticism they deserve and learn to adapt to and grow with it. This campaign is a little silly.

Mar. 12 2014 03:58 PM
T Jefferson from new york

it seems to the the problem is a problem of the resort to force, physical strength, as the way of resolving situations
boys and men, and especially immature and mentally underdeveloped, reflexively put down anyone who achieves more than they do without resorting to force
in terms of the reality on the ground of the public school system of his city (ny), where both my son and daughter were completely educated, girls were and are generally better organized, more socially and intellectually mature, lack attitude problems with authority, and come across as years ahead of their counterparts.
the mechanism of putting girls down is partly one of compensation - and it may be related to the fact that the old model (especially in the US) of the father/man as breadwinner and hero no longer squared with the facts. and part of this unfortunate type is the man who speaks and does not listen because listening is seen as passive and 'female', who feels commanding and derision are the most comfortable modes
the targetting of the word "bossy" may be a response to a real problem, but I feel cheapens the problem. and I think it is insults the intelligence of all involved with the PC resort to policing words especially given that root causes are the way parents raise their children and the massive commercial (and social) machine that continues decades after barbie and GI Joe to sell the old gender stereotypes, pink for girls, etc.

Mar. 12 2014 03:47 PM
Wendy Stock from Berkeley CA

Banning the word "bossy" is simply a means to encourage discussion and to raise awareness of the social bias against female leaders. Sandberg and others can cite abundant research documenting that this bias still exists and can affect girls' aspirations. Unfortunately the Takeaway discussion, and the guests interviewed on this topic, chose the most superficial, literal, sound-bite interpretation of this issue. Perhaps this is a function of the Twitter and American advertising culture, to omit political context and consideration of forces maintaining social inequality. In doing so, you end up reifying the status quo. This is not a question about being able to handle being labelled bossy in the workplace, it is a question about whether the label should be applied differentially to assertive women leaders, and to be aware of how it shapes our own and our children's perceptions of female leadership. Please make the Takeaway give more than empty calories, and more than the thoughtless mainstream media status quo.

Mar. 12 2014 03:44 PM
Wendy Stock from Berkeley CA

Banning the word "bossy" is simply a means to encourage discussion and to raise awareness of the social bias against female leaders. Sandberg and others can cite abundant research documenting that this bias still exists and can affect girls' aspirations. Unfortunately the Takeaway discussion, and the guests interviewed on this topic, chose the most superficial, literal, sound-bite interpretation of this issue. Perhaps this is a function of the Twitter and American advertising culture, to omit political context and consideration of forces maintaining social inequality. In doing so, you end up reifying the status quo. This is not a question about being able to handle being labelled bossy in the workplace, it is a question about whether the label should be applied differentially to assertive women leaders, and to be aware of how it shapes our own and our children's perceptions of female leadership. Please make the Takeaway give more than empty calories, and more than the thoughtless mainstream media status quo.

Mar. 12 2014 03:43 PM
KH from nyc

You don't have to be bossy to be an effective boss. I don't like bossy men either. Donald Trump is a jerk.

Mar. 12 2014 03:33 PM
Kim from San Francisco

With women more educated and taking up a great diversity of jobs, I believe women can take it if being called "bossy." I'm a woman and I certainly don't take it to heart if called "bossy." By the end of the day, it's about whether I can deliver the goods.

Mar. 12 2014 03:27 PM
not bossy from nyc

perhaps the word is being misused.
by starting the campaign it's raising awareness and will give us pause next time we apply it to someone.
some people, wo/men, do happen to be bossy...it happens.

Mar. 12 2014 02:50 PM
Larry Fisher from Brooklyn, N.Y.

My 9 year old daughter tells me what to do all the time: "Call mom!" "Give me your phone!" "I don't want junkfood... " etc. etc. I never equated her bossiness with bitchiness, though she can be a real pain in the ass.

I will let you know if I hear the word "bossy" used on the playground this spring. I don't think it will catch on as a derogatory replacement for "bitch," but I don't claim to fully understand these young whipper snappers.

Mar. 12 2014 02:01 PM
Mike Reid from Oregon

You do know that Bossy is the most popular and affectionate name for cows. I have a sheep I named Bossy and she is my favorite. The discussion is good, but the object of demonizing is terrible. I might note that I am the father of two highly qualified daughters, both electrical engineers. I taught them that they were not limited by just doing things with them since an early age. So anyone telling them that they couldn't do something just got a laugh.

Mar. 12 2014 01:03 PM
Kathy Auerbach from Bellingham WA

There is much more to the word than that which is implied by women who might be leaders in the work force, or who choose to be.

I wonder if people who use the word (bossy) are really reflecting their own sense that they aren't in control of their own world.

Example: women jealous of another woman's position/leadership status
Example: men who would like to be leaders, but who don't have the capability/skills and attempt to denigrade the women who ARE in a leadership position

We need to teach all of our children, boys as well as girls, who to confidently lead without putting others down, AND how to respond when someone else attempts to put them down via the use of a variety of words.

Mar. 12 2014 12:32 PM
Heidi Wilhelm from SE Ohio

I get incredibly annoyed when there is a discussion on this topic that includes an interview with women who speak in questions when they are making a comment. That type of speech (with the pitch going up at the end of a phrase and/or sentence) inherently makes the person speaking sound like someone who has a confidence issue. Is she sure of what she's saying? Is she comfortable saying something strongly? Is she ok with being smart and an expert? Make a statement, for crying out loud, and stop talking in questions. This is a speech pattern that more commonly is adopted by females than by males. And it makes me totally crazy?? NO!! it makes me totally CRAZY!!!

Mar. 12 2014 12:30 PM
Leah Middlebrook from Eugene, Oregon

A wise colleague pointed out to me that behind words such as "bossy" is a more important tendency in speech: to use words of description for some types of people (often women, people of color and people of lower socioeconomic class) and words of action with respect to others (often, not always, men of privilege).
By the way, what's wrong with inviting people to look for new words to express their meaning?

Mar. 12 2014 12:30 PM
Jason Fisher from Plano TX

Thank goodness for the woman who called out the difference between leadership and being bossy. Here's another difference. One of the things I see from both men and women in leadership positions is people who are manipulators. That also is not leadership. True leadership earns it's own respect. Being bossy or a manipulator earns despisement.

Mar. 12 2014 12:29 PM
mike from Texas

Everyone has somesort of stigma or side name. Males that are overbearing authorites are labeled as "Nazi" or "Dick". So in turn, "bossy" does not sound too bad. All we have to do is grow thick skin and not get offended unless someone is intentionally trying to do so.

Mar. 12 2014 11:51 AM

Hi Jon from New York!

We have an excerpt from the book in the article above and we also played audio of Tina Fey reading that passage on air. Thanks for your comment!

-T. J. Raphael
Digital Content Editor
The Takeaway

Mar. 12 2014 09:37 AM
BK from Hoboken

Sorry Sandberg is so out of touch with every day life. She needs to stick with her daytime job. My wife, a high earning very successful woman in the male dominated finance world of NYC, literally laughed out loud when we opened the WSJ this weekend. We both decided that this is exactly the sort of over reactive "stuff" (think a less acceptable word was used) that we ignore when raising our two girls. How about a story about how so many women come to the table with an inferiority complex and complain about every little challenge a girl faces? My girls don't even think there is a possibility that they can't do anything they want. Have some self confidence.

Mar. 12 2014 09:28 AM
Jon from New York

If you are concerned with Bossy replacing the "Other B Word," and therefore, say you can't use bossy, then another word will be used. It's irrelevant. Also, Tina Fey wrote a book called "Bossy Pants," if you didn't bring that up.

Mar. 12 2014 09:28 AM

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