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My Turn: ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign misses the mark

Tracy Hahn-Burkett mug shot for column. Shot on Thursday afternoon, November 3, 2011.

(John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

Tracy Hahn-Burkett mug shot for column. Shot on Thursday afternoon, November 3, 2011. (John Tully/ Monitor Staff)

Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, and Anna Maria Chavez, CEO of Girl Scouts of America, want to “Ban Bossy.” They say the word “bossy” is most often aimed at girls and women who exhibit assertive behavior, and this accusation discourages girls from ultimately becoming leaders because they feel compelled to keep quiet in order to be liked.

I want to support Sandberg and Chavez’s campaign. I really do. I understand that language matters and that words have the power to hurt, to hold back and to oppress. I applaud the motivation behind the “Ban Bossy” campaign; how could I not support an effort to encourage more girls to recognize their own capabilities and fulfill their potential? I even get the need, in our attention- deficit era, to condense any message into a hash-taggable, Vine-usable, 10-second-spot-explainable kernel. #BanBossy. Anything more complicated, and you risk losing a significant chunk of your audience.

But crafting a catchy message isn’t enough. That message’s call to action ought to be one that can make a real and positive difference, and that’s where “Ban Bossy” falls short.

Let’s take a look at what the word “bossy” means. Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition, defines bossy as: “inclined to domineer: DICTATORIAL.”

This is not a desirable quality in a leader. The boss or political leader who only barks directives will eventually find him or herself standing alone. He may command obedience, but it will be the brand of obedience that breeds resentment. True leadership requires a blend of more subtle qualities. A leader must speak with confidence, but also know how to listen. She is not afraid to ask questions, and she learns when and how to trust those she leads.

A leader knows that demonstrating compassion, showing those who work for him that he values their ideas and contributions and supporting his colleagues’ and subordinates’ ideas when possible will strengthen the bonds between himself and those he leads. A leader understands that she is working with people, not mindless minions, and she inspires those people to work to the best of their ability for her and for their shared purpose.

The best kind of leader may be a boss, but she or he isn’t bossy.

I have two children: a 12-year-old boy and a 9-year-old girl. At various times I have seen each of my kids order other kids around. I didn’t consider these instances demonstrations of leadership skills; rather, I’ve corrected their behavior when I deemed it out of line. I haven’t called my kids “bossy,” probably because I prefer to explain to them the behavior I’m looking for rather than slap a label on them. But I’ve tried to make clear to my kids that if they want to get along with people in any setting, they need to take the thoughts and feelings of others into account and work with them rather than simply demand that their friends do what they want them to do.

Before I sat down to write this column, I asked my kids about the word bossy. Both kids told me that they knew boys and girls who sometimes acted bossy. When I asked if it was more boys or more girls who acted this way, my son replied that it was about the same. My daughter answered, “The boys. The boys are definitely bossy more.” (Emphasis hers.)

This attitude mirrors what I’ve seen in our admittedly demographically limited area: Young kids are way ahead of their parents in their thinking about women’s roles and capabilities. They know girls can be doctors, lawyers, financial advisers, engineers and community leaders because they all know moms who are doctors, lawyers, financial advisers, engineers and community leaders. Many if not most of the moms they know work outside the home, and it’s a given that Mom’s career is just as much a part of who she is as Dad’s career is for him. Girls are obviously super-smart; if nothing else, Hermione Granger taught them that. None of these ideas are news to them.

Nevertheless, Sandberg and Chavez do have a point: Some girls and boys still do encounter differing expectations in school, and men and women certainly run into them in the workplace. Studies show for example, that overall boys get away with shouting out answers in school more often than girls. Women who display confidence at work, offer opinions without being asked and make their ambition clear sometimes do get called bossy and worse, at times failing to get jobs, assignments and promotions for these reasons. So how do we address that bias and change the behaviors?

A more productive campaign would focus on one of the numerous, tangible realities that would make a real difference in the ability of women to become leaders on equal terms with men. There are so many options: a lack of adequate, affordable child care; increasing economic disparity that leaves many – especially single mothers – unable to climb out of poverty; a lack of paid leave for mothers and fathers. If Sandberg and Chavez prefer to focus on attitudes, there are choices there as well: the fact that women still do the lion’s share of unpaid home and child care in the United States today, whether they work outside the home or not; or the fundamental lack of understanding and acceptance in the work world that our society needs children and that someone – preferably including the parents – has to raise those children.

Girls and women deserve better than a catchphrase. We don’t need anyone to ban a word for us, because we’ve got the skills to do better.

That’s not bossy; that’s just the truth.

(Tracy Hahn-Burkett of Bow is a writer and former public-policy advocate. She blogs at Uncharted Parent.com.)

Legacy Comments13

We are introduced to Bossy very early in life. Starts in elementary school with girls getting in groups and going after the girls they do not allow in their group. Those groups are pretty much nasty. They attack based on weight, clothes they wear and even how they wear their hair. Brutal mental abuse. Gets even nastier in middle school. That is basically poor parenting. I have worked for female and male bosses. Female bosses can be very nasty. They play favorites just like in school. And often times it does seem like you are back in school dealing with the mean girls. Male bosses have a lot of rules they have to abide by. Slip up and call an employee Dear and your sexist. Kind of ironic when you think of it. Women want equality, yet they have to make rules to get it. There are good reasons why many little girls prefer to play with the boys. They get tired of dealing with girls who are nasty, jelous and mean. Just look at the postings on this forum if you want to see how females roll.

Excellent points RabbitNH and you are female, which speaks volumes.

And what are the different words they use to describe men who are nasty, mean and jealous? How about "assertive, competent, competitive, self-assured, It is expected that men with little self esteem with be cowed by women bosses but it is a shame for a woman to join it the fray.

First and foremost, there need not be a "fray". If I was a CEO at a company, there would not be self promoters, nasty men or women and no one would be allowed to be mean or they would be terminated. "Assertive, competitive, self-assured" are virtues that everyone should reach to achieve but snappy, back stabbing, mean, showing preference for your own gender do not belong in a professional workplace.

It is BOSSY to demand the outlaw of BOSSY

Wow, Itsa you have really had it tough in the working world. First not hired because you were conservative, now because you were not a woman. I suppose next you will say once you were turned down because you weren't black or gay or a Christian. No wonder you hate progressives so much. They have had it out for you your whole working life.

No, but a lesbian boss once traumatized me and other men with disparaging remarks about us. Of course in 1980 there was nothing you could do about that. Brow beating, calling men "weak" leaders, targeting us and promoting women over men. Just two years of trauma and the company, because she was a woman would do nothing about it. Funny, all of us had much success both before and after that experience and she wound up leaving. I was so happy to exact revenge when she applied to a company I worked for and I recalled that experience to the President of that company. His response was "no way do we need that here". What goes around comes around tillie, remember that.

Absolutely Itsa,. I used know someone like you that never seemed to be able to get along with people at each job he went to and it always seemed to be someone else's fault. A job is like life, you are going to find a lot of different kinds of people there and some will like you and some you won't like, but you really have to learn to cope or you will never get ahead. Just a little advice, hope it is not too late for you.

LOL, I am already ahead, no worries. I will tell you that of all of the jerks I have worked for and all of the truly inspirational people I have worked for, I have developed my leadership style and have excelled, I got ahead by doing the right things for the right reasons and by treating my teams like human beings. Personal feelings, whether about anothers attitude or about their race, gender, etc. don't belong is any workplace. My style is colorblind, it is the only way. And I get along with just about anyone so long as they don't have an agenda. Coping just fine, tillie.

Well good for you Itsa, I am sure if someone asked the human beings on your team, they would also say they wouldn't want to work for someone with an agenda.

Now you know Itsa. It was not the folks who treated you badly that were the problem, it was you. They all got a pass because they most likely are Progressives.

Anyone who does not just "go along" and take it in the name of "fairness" or "affirmative action", especially if you are a WASP is to blame. After all, my grandfather had special favor, I mean he must have, he was white and a man. Now it is others "turn" as progressives level the playing field and by GOD, WASP's just need to shut up and take it. That is their attitude.

I read this and at moments was saying, "yes, yes!" and the next moment I was screaming "no way!" What we need to do as a society is step back from race, gender, sexual orientation and judge people in government and business by their abilities, personalities and decide if they have leadership skills. After 37 years in business, I can say without a doubt that women are much more difficult to work for then men. I don't fault them for this, I understand that over the last 30 years, women have had to compete with men and they develop a chip on their shoulder that tells them that they MUST be "tough". Now, before anyone explodes, not every woman. In general, women feel as if they have to work harder. In general, women "seem" to be more governed by emotion or at least allow emotion to enter their leadership mentality. All of this plays into the stereotype that women are "bossy". It is well known that when we hire people, we hire people who are like ourselves with the same values, same work ethic, same principles, same goals. That is a fact of life. It is not unreasonable to say that women are both intimidated and empowered in a workplace, especially when their team may be primarily made up of men. It is a myth that women are not on an equal par with men in business or government but the test should not be to put them on an equal par, both men and women should earn it through their innate and acquired abilities to manage, lead and inspire. Tracy is absolutely correct that leaders need to listen but they need to listen first, connect with the folks reporting to them and then they can outline their expectations. You lead best when you can relate to your team, build consensus and value their team. Often, women in the workplace, as the "boss", are unable to relax and are instead, stern, lack a sense of humor or just in general they sweat the small stuff. I can understand this as they are told that they are not on equal par with men, etc. But, my experience is that is simply not true. A few years ago I interviewed for a position only to be told by the recruiter that they liked me, found me more than qualified but they wanted to hire a woman. Tracy may think that women do not have equal opportunity but in business (I also see in government), they are given preference. It is not just about skills but in the business world it is about being able to lead. If women try too hard, they seem "bossy" and if they allow their emotion to cloud better judgment or if they have that chip on their shoulder, thinking that they have to work harder, be harsher, etc. the perception of "bossy" will remain for decades to come.

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