Growing up, young girls are constantly told not to be bossy. It happened to Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and best-selling author of Lean In, whose younger brother and sister joke that they weren’t actually her siblings, but rather, her first employees. It also happened to Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of the Girl Scouts of USA, who recalls people saying that her mother’s run for the local school board was inappropriate. The children of the 80s even grew up with Little Miss Bossy, a character from Roger Hargreaves’ Mr. Men and Little Miss Series, who told everyone what to do, “until Wilfred the Wizard cast a spell on her.”
Is this what we should be teaching young girls? In the eyes of Sandberg, Chávez, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and a growing group of powerful women, “bossy” has become another “B” word used to degrade girls and perpetuate gender stereotypes — ultimately leading to fewer females in leadership roles.
It’s time, these women say, to ban bossy. “We call girls bossy on the playground,” Sandberg told ABC News. “We then call them too aggressive or other ‘B-words’ in the workplace. They’re bossy as little girls, and then they’re aggressive, political, shrill, too ambitious as women.”
Sandberg’s organization, Lean In, has teamed up with the Girls Scouts of USA, Lifetime, BBDO New York and other partners in a social campaign called Ban Bossy. The mission? To encourage kids, parents, teachers, colleagues and managers to strike that negative word from their vocabulary, and replace it with positive descriptors that inspire girls to stand out and be leaders. “Words matter,” Chávez told ABC. “We need to start naming girls with positive attributes like strong, confident, resilient, with grit. Not bossy.”
Research has shown that language and labels, especially in childhood, can have a lasting impact on a person’s life. And oftentimes, it’s the girls who are put down while boys are encouraged to be assertive. Even nonverbal cues can negatively affect children’s perceptions of themselves. According to the American Association of University Women, girls are often called on less and interrupted more in the classroom. Girls between the ages of 8 and 17 are also twice as likely to avoid leadership roles so as not to be labeled “bossy”, according to a 2008 survey by the Girl Scouts. In these years, more importance is placed on being liked than being heard. It’s no wonder that girls shy away from leading. “We know that by middle school, more boys than girls want to lead,” Sandberg said. “And if you ask girls why they don’t want to lead, whether it’s the school project all the way on to running for office, they don’t want to be called bossy, and they don’t want to be disliked.”
Even though women make up more than half of the U.S. population, Sandberg points out that females represent only 5 percent of Fortune 500 executives, 17 percent of the board seats, and 19 percent of Congress. Meanwhile, the pay gap between men and women still hovers around 9 percent, after accounting for certain variables. Maybe the issue of gender inequality can’t solely rest on the shoulders of one word — even if it is fully loaded, like “bossy” — but the deeper goal is to encourage girls in the same way we encourage boys in order to level the playing field, while allowing girls to be proud of being loud.
Perhaps Beyoncé said it best: “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.”