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My Turn: ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign misses the mark

Last modified: 3/29/2014 12:17:15 AM
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


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