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. 

What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?

A couple months ago, I decided to read Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead.  Although it was met with much acclaim, it has also faced quite a bit of criticism.  Nevertheless, this book has become my new bible!  As I turned each page, I couldn’t help but think how spot on Sandberg was.  She delicately expressed the difficulties in balancing motherhood and a job, while guiding women to take charge of their careers and closing the leadership gap between men and women.

I think most of the critics of Lean In are women who don’t aspire to become leaders of organizations and cannot fully relate to Sandberg’s seemingly overambitious, type A, superhuman temperament that permeates the words on each page.  Being CEO of one’s household carries its own challenges and is hard work for a woman.  However, Lean In focuses on the struggles of women and mothers who face the challenge of fulfilling the societal characteristics of a good woman/mother/wife while advancing their careers.

I could write on a variety of topics that Sandberg touches on in her book, but I decided to start by deconstructing a portion of the chapter titled “The Leadership Ambition Gap: What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?” In this chapter, Sandberg speaks about the self-fulfilling prophecies that are introduced during childhood and reinforced as we grow up.  Society has become comfortable with seeing one woman at the table in a boardroom, but we have not adjusted to a woman leading the entire board.  It remains an anomaly to not only have a female running a company’s division, but to have a woman as the chief executive.

bossySandberg points out that since more men aim for leadership roles, they are more likely to obtain them.  Although women have progressed since the 50s, societal pressures still cause them to keep an eye on marriage from a young age.  It is not that women are less ambitious than men, it’s just that their aspirations change more dramatically as they grow.  Additionally, cultural messages reinforce the ambition gap between men and women.  Someone recently coined the term “bawse” to characterize a man or woman who seems in control of his or her life/destiny.  But Sandberg notes that when women try to lead they are still labeled as bossy (in a pejorative way, not they way Kelis celebrates it in her track).  And even though some women may say they don’t need to be liked, they only need to be respected at work—that’s a lie.  Almost all women care about being liked especially in the workplace.

It’s time for women to bridge the performance gap!  What would you do if you weren’t afraid?  This is the trillion-dollar question. We’ve all heard someone (or ourselves) say “man I wish I could/did …” Oftentimes for a woman, fear is given as the reason why she hasn’t accomplished a goal.  But what if we weren’t restricted by our fears, what would we do?  The answer doesn’t have to entail bringing world peace or single-handedly ending hunger in developing countries.

cautiont to the wind“Risk taker” is far from a characteristic that is befitting to me.  I recognize the things I would do if I were fearless would require me to live poorly or marry rich.  Nevertheless, if I weren’t afraid, I would pack up and move to South Africa with my doggy; I’d become a legal consultant or study the history of the country and write a book comparing the struggles and current lives of South Africans vis à vis black Americans; I’d focus my practice of law on the truly indigent; I would live in a Spanish speaking country and submerge myself in the culture.  live more and care less.  Bottom line is there are so many things that I would do if I weren’t sometimes frozen from the fear that accomplishing these goals would preclude me from having other important things in my life–like a family.

After finishing Lean In, I will no longer live through my fears!  As Sandberg points out, the world needs more women to aim high, lean in to their careers and run the world because the world needs us to change it.  Women all around the world are counting on us.

“Ask yourself: What would I do if I weren’t afraid?  And then go do it.”

%d bloggers like this: