Are We Banning the Wrong B Word?

If you haven’t already heard, Sheryl Sandberg and a few celebrities, well-known politicians (Condoleezza Rice, Beyoncé and Jennifer Garner to name a few) and organizations (Girls Scouts) are campaigning to ban the word bossy from our vocabulary. Sandberg, author of the book Lean In, which I’ve blogged about a few times, believes that girls are mislabeled bossy when they assert themselves as leaders. Whereas, boys who demonstrate bossy characteristics are heralded for their assertiveness.  The ban bossy website states that “by middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys — a trend that continues into adulthood.”  Are Sandberg and her supporters right?  Should we ban the usage of the word bossy?

Before I began penning this post, I vacillated on my position to this question. Were girls growing up to become women who hesitate in asserting themselves for fear of reprisal — being called bossy?  Even if that were true, banning the word isn’t the solution. Rather, we need to learn the true definition of the word bossy and teach others to use it in context. Whether you use the term, bossy, pushy, bully, overly aggressive, abrasive, etc., it all means the same thing.  I don’t think Sandberg is prepared to go on a crusade to overhaul Webster’s Dictionary.

Bossy became a word in the late 1800s as a derivation of the word boss. Let’s face it, we all know some bossy bosses who are male and female.  A bossy person is someone who orders others around with very little empathy toward those on the receiving end.  Whereas, a leader is someone who has mastered the fine art of asking others to do things, using a non-forceful or menacing tone.  This, in its simplest terms, is the distinction between being a leader and being bossy.  So what our children really need to learn is this distinction; no one likes a bossy person, irrespective of their gender.  Bossy people may get farther than those with demure personalities. However, an individual with great leadership skills will always get the farthest.  As parents, it is important to not limit your daughter’s assertiveness as long as she is being kind.  Oftentimes that tone is mimicked by what she hears from her parents. Similarly, boys should be scolded, rather than praised, when their tone becomes despotic. Children will understand the subtlety more easily if it is demonstrated by their parents.  The intonation that parents use with one another could eradicate bossy behavior while keeping the word in our lexicon to remind us how not to behave.  In other words, the manner in which we communicate could eradicate bossy behavior in our kids.

There are other derogatory B words that relate to women that Sandberg should consider eliminating.  For instance, we have turned the word “b!tch” on its head. Lil Kim made us all want to be a bad b!tch and a queen b!tch; and Kelis embraced her bossy demeanor by telling us she’s the “b!tch we love to hate,” and Beyoncé, one of the spokeswomen for the Ban Bossy campaign, sings “bow down b!tches.”  Meanwhile the woman who is disliked is referred to as the crazy b!tch.  More important than not being bossy, women don’t want to come across as being b!tchy (in the negative sense of the word).  Unlike the word b!tch, bossy is a well-defined term that hasn’t been turned on its head nor is it vastly embraced.  Even if we teach children the true meaning of the word bossy, the little girl who would have been called bossy in middle school will still be mischaracterized as a b!tch (or b!tchy) either by herself or by her peers when she becomes older.  So the real campaign should be to ban the use of the word b!tch.  There is nothing pleasant about the definition of the word b!tch, yet we (myself included at times) have embraced it, using it as a term of endearment as well as a way of demeaning other women.  So while Sheryl Sandberg is worried about having her leadership style misconstrued as bossy, she’s probably being called a b!tch by people who love and hate her.  This seems more problematic to the struggle for gender equality because the insecurity will continue only masked in a different term.  Although I respect Sandberg’s premise that words are a powerful tool and we should eliminate words that can harm us, banning the word bossy isn’t the approach that women should take if we truly seek to empower ourselves.  I admire her efforts but she chose the wrong B word. 

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Have A Seat Where It Matters

I walk into the room with my notebook and pen in hand.  In the center is a large mahogany table.  A quick scan of the room confirms my assumption that there more people in attendance than there are chairs around the table.  I’m wearing 4-inch heels.  This meeting is likely to last at least an hour.  Standing is not an option.  Against the walls are chairs.  I take seat.  At the table.

lean inBefore reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, I gave little thought to what impression I was giving when I entered a meeting with my colleagues and immediately grabbed a seat on the peripheral.  It was common practice for the directors to occupy the seats at the table.  However, the day after reading the chapter titled “Sit at the Table” I was determined to abrogate the Division’s unwritten rule.

In this chapter, Sandberg continues to expound on her belief that women hold themselves back by personally choosing to watch from the sidelines.  Sandberg explains that it isn’t a lack of seating at the table that draws a woman to the side of the room and glued to her chair, it is a woman’s sense of her insecurities.  Despite her accolades, a woman is oftentimes plagued with self-doubt—this is characterized as the imposter syndrome.

When I began my new job, it was important for me to learn my environment by observing the behaviors of my peers.  I quickly observed that when meeting in a conference room, only senior staff sat at the table.  The rest of the staff sat on the periphery while glancing at the unoccupied seats around the table.  On the day I walked into the meeting wearing my 4-inch heels, I remembered Sandberg’s story about Tim Geitner’s staff when he served as Treasury Secretary.

Sandberg recounted a time when Secretary Geitner arrived at Facebook’s office with four members of his staff (all female) to discuss the state of the economy.   Despite her coaxing to have the women sit at the large conference table, they sat off to the side of the room. To emphasize the purpose of the story, Sandberg noted that sitting on the side makes you a participant a spectator rather than a participant.

Despite my colleagues’ apprehension to have a seat at the table, I know I earned my right to be there and I wasn’t going to wait for an invitation–so I decided to lean in.  After taking a seat and reassuring myself that I wasn’t a fraud sitting at the table, my confidence began to increase and I decided to also give my opinion on a topic that was discussed in the meeting.  I am still a victim of self-doubt from time to time but I remind myself that if I don’t recognize my value, I can’t be disappointed when no one else does.

Sitting at the table is symbolic to having self-assurance and knowing you have a right to be acknowledged.   In order to reach for opportunities we have to feel confident or pretend that we do until it becomes our reality.  I have adopted Tina Fey’s mantra of how she overcomes her lack of self confidence: “seriously, I’ve just realized that almost everyone is a fraud, so I try not to feel too bad about it.”

Never miss an opportunity to sit at the table and eventually we’ll have more boardroom meetings that look like these:

business-woman-meeting

Board Meeting

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