The Other B-Word

Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Chávez have launched a campaign against “bossy”:

Most dictionary entries for “bossy” provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries’ “bossy, meddling woman” to Urban Dictionary’s “She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone.” Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.

Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. … How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?

Deborah Tannen supports the idea:

I once had high-ranking women and men record everything they said for a week, then shadowed them and interviewed them and their co-workers.

I found that women in authority, more often than men in similar positions, used language in ways that sounded a lot like what researchers observed among girls at play. Instead of “Do this,” women managers would say “Let’s …” or “What you could do,” or soften the impact by making their statements sound like questions.

In short, women at work are in a double bind: If they talk in these ways, which are associated with and expected of women, they seem to lack confidence, or even competence. But if they talk in ways expected of someone in authority, they are seen as too aggressive. That’s why “bossy” is not just a word but a frame of mind. Let’s agree to stop sending girls and women the message that they’ll be disliked – or worse – if they exercise authority.

But Danielle Henderson urges women to embrace their bossiness:

We should be telling girls to own the living shit out of bossiness. Instead of casting it as a pejorative, we should be reifying the idea that being bossy directly relates to confidence, and teaching girls how to harness that confidence in productive and powerful ways. This isn’t a problem of language – the problem is our backwards system that rewards women for silence and compliance, and encouraging them to be less fierce is a supremely fucked up way to counter that. What is this wilting flower, let’s-not-say-bad-words approach to empowerment?

Meanwhile, Olga Khazan warns that efforts to make girls more willing to be “bossy” may inadvertently target the introverted:

Of course it’s good to encourage girls to be leaders. But not all leaders have extroverted personalities. In fact, some of the best ones are quiet, shy loners who were likely never called “bossy” in their lives.

The anti-bossy movement aims to encourage girls to speak up “even if you aren’t sure about the answer,” but introverts prefer to process their thoughts and form solid ideas before expressing them. Studies on introverted leaders have shown that they are not any less effective than their more gregarious counterparts, and some studies have even shown that humbler leaders can inspire better-functioning management teams. Charismatic CEOs get paid more, but their firms don’t perform any better on average than those of more reserved principals.

She adds that efforts should be made to push workplaces and schools “to better recognize the talents of introverts – not to pressure girls or boys or anyone to simply act in a more extroverted way.”