by Melissa Brunner
I sat in the Sunflower Ballroom Tuesday surrounded by some of the most accomplished women in the Topeka community. They were past recipients of the ABWA Career Chapters Woman of Distinction honor, gathered to applaud the 2014 honoree, retired Kansas Court of Appeals Judge Christel Marquardt.
I looked at her, then at the group which included former two former state cabinet secretaries, an advertising executive, hospital administrator, philanthropy leaders and more. I couldn't help but wonder if any of them had ever been called "bossy."
Bossy is a huge buzz word this week. It is thrust into the spotlight thanks to the "Ban Bossy" campaign launched by Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg, joined by Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez. As BanBossy.com explains:
When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don't raise your hand or speak up.
Sandberg's campaign encourages people to stop using the word "bossy," thereby ending the negative connotation the descriptor might carry. According to the campaign, girls are twice as likely as boys to worry that taking a leadership role might make them seem bossy, so they hold back, starting a trend that could continue into adulthood and deprive the world of all they might have been compelled to achieve.
While the campaign has attracted support from the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer Garner, Victoria Beckham and Beyonce, it also has ignited a firestorm of criticism. Consider just a few of the tweets:
There are many other demeaning and stereotypical words and images aimed towards women aside from "bossy". Let's ban those too. #banbossy— Vanessa. (@_vanessamarissa) March 12, 2014
I'm all about women being leaders, but #banbossy is beyond stupid.— laurajean (@lauraabullard) March 12, 2014
I gotta admit, I thought the #banbossy effort was an anti-bullying campaign. Nope, it's a bullying campaign to stop us calling bullies bossy— Theo Cloirk (@TomCrowe) March 12, 2014
And a column by Mollie Hemingway posted at The Federalist listed seven reasons why the campaign is "ridiculous. You can read it here.
So who is right? I would submit that both sides are.
To say that banning the word "bossy" is being overprotective of girls, shielding them from something that might hurt their feelings; or that it doesn't make sense because boys, too, can be called "bossy" is true. However, it is also oversimplifying the intent of the campaign.
Encouraging girls to lead does not shield girls at all. If anything, it puts them at greater risk for being hurt. Leaders are not always successful. Leaders must learn how to get back up after failing. Leaders also will face rejection. Leaders must learn, not how to be bossy, but how to rally followers around a common objective.
Critics also say the Sandberg campaign uses the terms "bossy" and "leadership" interchangeably. I agree that these two words are not the same thing. Being bossy is a negative for both boys and girls. Being called bossy can be just as detrimental to a shy boy as it is to a quiet girl. Being assertive and not hiding your skills or limiting your contributions are not actions that are bossy. They are examples of confidence in yourself and your abilities.
This, to me, is the crux of where I see people oversimplifying what #BanBossy is. It is not about banning the word, so much as it is about banning the attitude. It is not about admonishing boys to shut up; it is about encouraging girls to speak up. No, not every girl aspires to be a corporate CEO or political leader or legal great. That's okay. But girls and young women should be encouraged to develop the skills they will need to take care of themselves and succeed in whatever walk of life they might choose. If you delver further into BanBossy.com, you will find examples of how gender attitudes slip into the workplace and classroom and how we can recognize and change them in ourselves and others. You will find figures on how gender bias exhibits itself in pay and representation in corporate leadership positions. It is information that definitely goes beyond the use of a single word.
I do not think "leader" when I think "bossy" - I think "bully." Call out bossy where you see it and foster positive, effective leadership skills in children. Just make sure that what you are defining as bossy behavior is not colored by engrained stereotypes, gender or otherwise. THAT is what the Ban Bossy campaign is trying to tell us.
I did not ask Judge Marquardt if she ever was called bossy, but I did ask her why we still need to recognize the achievements of women speficially. She said it is because discrimination still exists. It may not be as blatant as when she was entering the legal profession in the mid-70s, but, she says, it is still there.