What is missing from the Ban Bossy campaign

Does labelling a confident, assertive girl 'bossy' hold her back?
Does labelling a confident, assertive girl 'bossy' hold her back? Photo: Getty

When my daughter acts in ways that are commonly described as bossy, I cringe but bite my tongue.

I don’t want to crush her assertiveness but I’m well aware from bitter experience that this behaviour in girls and women comes at a price. I’m constantly battling between what I know to be right and my maternal instinct to protect my daughter from social disapproval.

But now a new campaign supported by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Beyonce is urging parents to do more than remain silent when our girls overstep the bounds of compliant good-girl behaviour.

The Ban Bossy campaign is urging parents to actively encourage our girls to be assertive and bold. The campaign wants to banish adjectives like ‘bossy’, ‘pushy’, ‘stubborn’ and ‘know-it-all’ from our vocabulary. Such words are used to discipline girls’ behaviour — behaviour, which, if exhibited by boys, would be encouraged as a sign of leadership.

As the campaign site 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.’

The Ban Bossy campaign is close to home for me. When I was a management consultant I was repeatedly told in performance reviews that I ‘come across as too intimidating’, as one account director put it.

‘Do I intimidate you?’, I asked him. 

‘Of course not, but you do intimidate the other account directors,’ he said.

I then asked all the other account directors if I intimidated them, and they each replied, ‘Of course not, but you do intimidate the other account directors.’

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It crossed my mind at the time that perhaps my feedback wouldn’t have been so negative if I’d been a man. Some men build their careers on being intimidating. It was clear to me that women in the workplace aren’t allowed to use the same tools that my male colleagues were not only permitted to use but rewarded for using.

My experience is backed up by research showing that men are promoted for being angry and aggressive but the same behaviour can be career-limiting for women.

This leaves women in a no-win situation. Women aren't allowed to be upfront and assertive. But if they use other methods to assert themselves they’re labeled as ‘nags’ or being ‘manipulative’. And both of those alternate methods of persuasion come with their own social scorn and punishment.

While having sympathy for the Ban Bossy campaign, and longing for a world where my daughter does not have to apologise for her strong opinions or convictions, I’m not sure how much it will change things.

For example, the video accompanying the campaign carries the message ‘Change the word. And we change the future.’

Nice sentiment and all, but is it really that easy? The idea that the deeply ingrained cultural stereotypes about girls and boys — and women and men — will whither away through a spot of linguistic hygiene seems painfully optimistic.

Even if it does change the way we refer to girls’ behaviour, the Ban Bossy campaign misses a whole slice of the potential audience, namely boys and men. Looking through the campaign website, all of the materials are aimed at girls and parents (read: ‘mother’).

While women and girls might stop using the word, they’re up against a whole culture that rewards and glamorises women for being compliant. After all, the people who told me at performance reviews that I was intimidating — the corporate speak for bossy — weren’t other women. In every case it was a man.

And I’m not sure I’m ready to start taking parenting advice from an organisation endorsed by Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleeza Rice and Beyonce.

Sandberg, after all, is part of a company that only belatedly took action against pages promoting gender-based violence, and seems to think that images of women breastfeeding are offensive but beheadings are just fine. For her part, Rice seemed to have no qualms about running a war alongside a bunch of gun-toting-Christian-fundamentalist-crazies. And, lyrics and slogans aside, Beyonce’s public performances reinforce pretty much every stereotype going of women being little more than sex kittens.

But my greatest concern about the campaign is the lesson it is not teaching our daughters about resilience.

Do we really want girls to think that a mere word can hold them back? That they are so incapable of standing up against name-calling that the words need to be struck from our vocabulary?

The reality is that when it comes to gender equality we are still in the trenches. Strong women are going to face pushback for many years to come, regardless of how we edit the dictionary. Rather than protecting our girls from hurtful words, perhaps we should be toughening them up so they can take the criticism in their stride and do what they want to do anyway.

The next time my daughter is bossy, rather than staying silent, I’m going to encourage and celebrate it. And when she is inevitably labeled bossy I’ll remind her that, ‘Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.’

Kasey Edwards is the author of Thirty-Something And The Clock is Ticking. www.kaseyedwards.com

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