I read an article yesterday about the formidable “Lean In” author Sheryl Sandberg and her “Ban Bossy”campaign. I’m not sure if I’m just reading the wrong stuff, but I’m yet to find an article about Sandberg that does not have passive aggressive undertones. Maybe journalists don’t like her because she’s so rich, or so high-achieving, or so confident, or, dare I say it, because she is the very essence of a “bossy woman”.
With #banbossy, Sandberg had hoped to tackle the stigma attached to assertive and ambitious women and girls. In spite of the slew of negativity that accompanied the launch, #banbossy has fast become the feminist mantra of the moment. It has caught the imagination of the progressive movement in the US by asserting the need for female empowerment from a young age, and praising bold and strident young women in an era when social media has made people pleasers of us all.
But much has also been said about the irony of bossily banning the word bossy. And while I applaud Sandberg for championing this movement – and facing the online trolling that accompanies bold statements – I’m never going to be in favour of banning words. Rather, as the pedantic linguist that I am, I would prefer to reclaim the word and take the shame out of being bossy.
To label bossy as wholly negative, is to make it shameful – and it shouldn’t be. Dictionary definitions of bossy include “given to ordering people about” or “inclined to domineer”, and while few would want to domineer all the time, bossiness is a competency that good leaders should have and be able draw upon on occasion – regardless of their gender. To eradicate it, means that we can’t apply it when needed.
And to rebrand bossiness as leadership, or confidence, or ambition, is also a falsehood. And this falsehood is the fundamental underpinning tenet of the #banbossy movement – that boys are praised for bossiness and girls and reprimanded for it. I don’t think this is true. As a mother of a boy and a girl – I can confidently say that they are both called bossy in equal measure – and they can both deploy bossiness with great effect when needed!
To take pride in bossiness, we need positive examples of bossiness in action, and Sandberg described a great bossy moment in yesterday’s article:
“Not long after Sandberg joined Facebook, the company threw one of its themed lunch events to which all staff were invited. It was taco day, and Sandberg, approaching the line for food, stood for a moment to take in the scene. “There was the taco stuff, and then there was this bar for the fixings,” she says. The staff members, observed Sandberg, were taking too long with the fixings [toppings] and creating a bottleneck. “And I watched this and thought, this is ridiculous. I said, ‘Excuse me, everyone!’ And I made the fixings bar into a double line. And the line started moving and everyone was like, yeah!” She laughs. “It was one of those moments when I think people were a little shocked, but I gained a lot of credibility in the company.”
I love this – it is best practice bossiness. And as a card-carrying bossy boots, this resonates with me strongly. I often find myself as the one who stands up on a crowded bus and orders people to move up the aisle and take seats to make more room for people waiting on the street. People don’t love me for doing it, but it is the right thing to do, and, yes it is bossy. Now if I took this approach to my whole life, I would of course have no friends, so I have learned to temper my bossiness and only use it when needed (usually in organising queues of people or on buses). But I celebrate my bossiness as a core competency and there is no way I plan to #banbossy in my life.
Sheryl Sandberg is an inspiration to me because she is brave, outspoken, successful and a myriad of other things. But I also love her because she is bossy.