It’s All About the “Bossiness,” Baby
Last weekend, I was at a lunch with an amazing group of women discussing feminist issues. At one point during our lunch, Justine Kallaugher (that’s right-it’s a “shout-out”), shared recent controversy over Sheryl Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign. This conversation led to a spirited dialogue of numerous vantage points and opinions, which I thought were valuable to bring to a larger table.
For those of you who, like me, were late to hearing about this campaign, Sheryl Sandberg recruited numerous prominent women to speak out against describing girls as “bossy.” The core message is that girls are often ridiculed or put-down when displaying leadership skills and are labeled as “bossy.” I began compiling articles, blogs, critiques, critiques of the critiques, and felt inspired by our own discussion to write an additional critique. Out of my search, two to three authors found Sandberg’s points to resonate with their own beliefs, and found meaning in this campaign (ABCnews.com, BadgerHerald.com). It seems the large majority of writers found some issue with the campaign, while others declared the movement “social idiocy” and “female political narcissism” (Return on the Kings.com).
Overall, several themes seemed to emerge in the writing.
There seemed to be an interesting contradiction that sexism is a “fictional problem” and women should “appreciate” what they have, while also expressing confusion as to why more women do not seize the leadership torch (RealClearPolitics.com, Return of the Kings.com). In other words, we can’t expect women to compete at the same level, yet we ask women why they just can’t do better? Why aren’t women happy with what they have? Perhaps women are not satisfied with unequal pay, among other things, but this contradiction is the precise position in which women are left.
Others seemed to blame women and parents for career success, arguing that women spend more time childrearing and thus, have more access to mold children (Return of the Kings.com). They maintained parents and mothers simply need to “teach their children” more about leadership (Return of the Kings.com, The Daily Beast.com, The Federalist.com). In short, the issue of girls not entering leadership roles was framed as a woman’s issue, and the author encouraged organizers of the campaign to “narrow this campaign’s scope to women” (Return of the Kings.com). I would venture to say that most parents wish they were the sole influence of kids, particularly in a world where children are flooded with massive amounts of harmful messages. Fortunately and unfortunately, children are also shaped by culture, media, friends, the educational system, parents of friends, spiritual leaders, neighbors, additional caregivers, and so many other sources that can be impactful and difficult to filter.
Another theme emerged, wherein some conveyed frustration with recent movements to encourage and support education for girls. One author expressed confusion, stating, “people want what they want-the heart wants what the heart wants, after all-if anybody needs so much assistance, something is amiss” (Return of the Kings.com). Unfortunately, we tend to want what we are taught to value, and even then, most children can quickly begin to acknowledge that we cannot always have the things we most cherish for a multitude of reasons. In this way, girls can quickly give up dreams for which they may be well-equipped, essentially because they have understood the implicit social expectations.
Others aired frustration and minimized the movement, citing the “top-down” initiative, wherein successful and prominent women brought awareness to the use of the word “bossy” (CNN.com, NYPost.com). Some argued Sheryl Sandberg has been privileged in many identities and is disconnected from the needs of other women, while others posited that prominent women have nothing to “complain about” (Return of the King.com, The Daily Best.com). Others yet, argued that there are “much bigger fish to fry” (The Daily Beast.com). It seems as though, as has historically occurred within feminist movements, moves to alter the quality of life are framed in opposition to socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity. While these variables and underprivileged identities are undoubtedly intertwined, I argue that progress in one aspect need not be exclusive to progress in others. Yes, there absolutely are larger underlying issues than the use of one word, AND it also does not mean that there is, necessarily, a wrong place to start. Broader change takes place over time, one small step at a time.
Other authors suggested “we can never be defined by the labels others put on us” (Forbes.com). While this idea is awe-inspiring, perhaps it may be more realistic to state that we wish we did not define ourselves by the labels others put on us, but we are social creatures and build our identities in relationship to others. In acknowledging our social experience, other women suggested girls should “toughen up” if they want to survive in more prolific career roles, by utilizing the argument that they were called “bossy” and turned out fine (CNN.com, Forbes.com, The Daily Beast.com,Time.com). By taking this approach, we not only deny that others may experience encounters with being called “bossy” in different ways, but we also revert to identifying the major problem as lying within girls for being overly-sensitive. In a lot of ways, we blame the victim for feeling hurt. Similarly, we are making the assumption that the world will never change around girls, so girls must always adapt to hostile environments.
Several authors suggested that women would experience more success by reclaiming the word “bossy” to remove its power, as banning words is “un-American” and ineffective (CNN.com, Forbes.com, Huffington Post.com, NYPost.com, Washington Post.com). These authors raised concerns that additional words would be created to take the place of “bossy.” By arguing this point, we remove our sense of responsibility and deny that words do not generate themselves. People create and replace words to fulfill a social purpose. Words, in and of themselves, are not inherently harmful, but represent our cultural beliefs, thoughts, and can trigger judgment. More generally, perhaps the idea of banning words has felt too zealous for some and it may be more impactful to highlight that just because we CAN use words as descriptors, does not necessarily mean we SHOULD.
One author offered the following statement as an argument against Sandburg’s campaign: “Tina Fey is a bossypants and I love her” (The Federalist.com). I cannot help but think that claiming to have a friend of a different cultural identity does not automatically exempt one from holding a general bias against that group. Perhaps this point is self-explanatory.
Finally, several authors expressed concern that maybe some girls frankly are “bossy” and unpleasant, and should be able to receive feedback about their interpersonal style (CNN.com, Huffington Post.com, NPR.org, NYPost.com, Time.com). While domineering, authoritarian, and dictatorial behavior is absolutely not appropriate, perhaps we can continue to use a variety of other synonyms to describe this behavior using words that are not also used to describe healthy assertive and confident behavior in girls.
In a lot of ways, much of what struck me about the articles I encountered was divisiveness among women. Women seemed to be attacking other women-for not supporting women correctly. Even while numerous arguments were proposed, many authors did not inherently disagree with Sandberg’s desire to achieve equality, but rather with the solution proposed. Perhaps the common goal can be to raise awareness about when we find ourselves using this word, what behavior we are describing, and whether or not the word fits. Let us find the common ground, let us embrace the spirit of the movement, by supporting women who use their voices to reach equality. Let this show of support be the example that girls might need to see, to continue inspiring them to express their opinions and take on assertive roles.
I want to send a group “shout-out” to Justine Kallaugher, Dr. Debra Mollen, Sonia Carrizales, Dena Abbott, and Jennifer Mootz, for sparking this discussion and serving as the catalyst for this blog.
Written by Noelany Pelc