Ban Bossy Behavior: A Response to Sheryl Sandberg

By Audi, Already Pretty Contributor

Sheryl Sandberg believes that little girls who are told they’re bossy will be discouraged from pursuing leadership positions in their careers. I hope that’s true, since bossiness is in fact one of the worst qualities a leader can have. As BJ Gallagher correctly points out in her Huffington Post piece, if the word bossy is applied correctly it describes someone who is domineering, authoritarian, and overbearing. But the Ban Bossy campaign also misses on another, more fundamental level: it makes a sweeping, biased generalization about how young girls are inspired to pursue their dreams and ambitions.

Ban Bossy at its core rests on the assumption that little girls possess an inherent weakness that other children do not. It assumes that a single word can determine the entire course of a girl’s life, and can cause her to stray from a path to which her natural abilities would otherwise lead her. It assumes that little girls are not able to accept truthful criticism and to learn from it, and will abandon their goals at the slightest discouragement. It does not take into account that all people are individuals, and will respond to feedback in different ways. One cannot simply reduce an entire gender to a convenient catch phrase; some girls may indeed be crushed by being called bossy, while others may become stronger and more resilient than ever, but none will benefit from being allowed to engage in ill behavior which will ultimately impair their ability to succeed.

Setbacks and criticism are important drivers in people’s lives, girls included. Strength of character emerges through times of hardship, and would-be leaders in particular must pressure test their abilities in part through overcoming life’s hurdles. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be aware of how our words may affect children’s self-esteem; I’m sure there isn’t a human alive who doesn’t recall some careless comment, probably from a well-meaning adult relative, which had negative echoes for years to come. But shielding little girls from any criticism, especially criticism which is honest and well founded, is not how great leaders are created.

How can we possibly identify the future leaders of the world as children anyway, and why should we even try? Whatever happened to letting kids be kids, instead of forcing them to think about ways in which they might contribute to the work force as adults? Let’s face it, few of us end up with jobs that any child would ever dream about; even someone who thoroughly enjoys their profession would be hard pressed to describe it in a way that would sound even remotely appealing to kids. Telling a child they have leadership potential is preposterous; for one thing it may place undue pressure on the child to live up to that expectation, and for another, an individual’s strengths and abilities often emerge much later in life. If you want to see what a great leader looks like as a child, don’t look for the one who’s ordering other kids around on the playground; look for the unassuming, thoughtful child who shows compassion for others and works hard, because those are the personality traits that inspire others.

So I say yes, let’s ban bossy – behavior, that is. Bossiness is a universally reviled trait, and it must not be mistaken for a sign of natural leadership ability. We must stop assuming that girls are too weak or too sensitive to be able to bear the hard truths of life and not emerge as accomplished, confident adults; the kind of adults who can truly lead.

_ _ _ _ _

Audi is a biotech professional in San Francisco, California. Her blog, Fashion for Nerds, was born out of the frustration of feeling as if science and fashion were doomed to be forever divided. Through her blog she discovered she wasn’t the only one who believes that style has its place even in a scientific workplace; over the years she has met countless other women who struggle to prevent their love of fashion from hindering their credibility as technical leaders. Now in her mid-forties, Audi particularly enjoys testing the boundaries of “age-appropriate” dressing and thinks most style rules were made to be broken. Another important influence on her style is the problem of chronic foot pain, an issue which is exacerbated by San Francisco’s hilly streets and one that she is resolved not to let defeat her obsession with great looking shoes.

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23 Responses to “Ban Bossy Behavior: A Response to Sheryl Sandberg”

  1. Cloggie

    Wow. You missed the point of “ban bossy” by a mile. Granted, it wasn’t present so clearly, but still. The point is the double standard that girls get called bossy when boys don’t. It is correct that “bossy” isn’t inherently gendered but it is used that way. The same behaviors that get called bossy in girls get encouraged in boys or at least treated as part and parcel of “maleness”. The point of “ban bossy” isn’t to shield anyone from criticism but to think about the word choice because it does matter. Additionally, this post touches on a few topics but doesn’t really develop them or narrow it down for the space available.

    I believe that Sally is travelling at the moment and might be short on time but surely there could have been something better to publish today. I seriously think less of the blog for having published this.

    • Anne

      Hi Gals — I hear that you really disagree with the OP. You want to support girls to share their voice and perspective. This is awesome! You don’t want anyone shamed for using their skills.

      I feel sad when you question the publishing of Audi’s article and the value of Sally’s blog. I feel like you’re saying that the OP’s perspective is different from your perspective and therefore shouldn’t be published.

      I can see some parallels here between silencing a different perspective and labeling a child “bossy” in order to quiet her down.

      • Angela Denker

        I don’t mind a different perspective, but the problem is that the perspective wasn’t argued well. The writer seemed to miss the point of the “ban bossy” campaign, which is meant to point out that girls are unfairly targeted.
        Silencing perspectives is different than expecting a higher standard of argument, based in logic. I would have listened to a counterpoint article that addressed the double standard – but this one took the odd tack of explaining why no one should be bossy (ok, great). I’d surely be open to hearing the writer’s explanation of where she was coming from!

  2. Yolie

    Interesting article! I agree with most of what you’re saying, except I think this misses an important point. The reason the campaign focuses on young girls and the word “bossy” is because that term is almost exclusively applied to them. It’s not that women can’t handle normal criticism like everyone else, it’s that this word isn’t normal criticism because it’s only applied to one gender on a regular basis. In my experience I have never heard a young boy or man be called bossy even when the description would have fit perfectly. It’s a word that gets thrown around little girls aren’t acting calm, passive, and agreeable during group projects.

    Of course, this is based on my speculation– maybe there are also legions of little boys getting called out for “bossy” behavior somewhere else. It wasn’t a part of my childhood, though– I feel like in boys that is a behavior that is rewarded, and is called things like “taking charge” or being “commanding”.

    However, I do agree that the campaign is weirdly specific and has flaws– such as the ACTUAL meaning of the word bossy being something that is undesirable. However, I’d like to think she was referring to the fact that “bossy” gets thrown around to shut down young women trying to take leadership roles. Of course women can overcome this criticism, however I think the campaign is less about protecting sensitive young women and more about questioning sexist double standards.

    • what not

      I agree with you, and also want to add my personal experience to your second paragraph. I’m a woman helping raise a five-year-old boy whom I’ve described (not around him) as “bossy” in his interactions with his younger brother, friends, and adults. I think of it as “bossy” and not just “rude” or “demanding”, because his behavior is much like mine was at his age, and “bossy” is indeed what people called me.

      The way he sounds is not like leadership, it’s just ordering: “No, you do this. You go over there. And do it as soon as I think of it, no matter what else you were doing.” It’s a turn-off to us, and so, we imagine, it’ll be a turn-off when he’s in school meeting new kids, so we’re actively working on teaching him more patience (acknowledging his desire and then having him wait for us to finish) and politeness (“When you say it that way, I don’t really want to help you. Why don’t you try [this other way] instead?”).

      So it’s complicated, right? I was treated as “bossy” as a little girl, and I was kind of demanding–but so were other kids, I’m sure, especially first-borns like me and our five-year-old, and it didn’t help my emotional development to hear that my strong personality was “too much” for those around me. But sometimes demanding behavior doesn’t help kids of any gender, from purely social situations to the workplace. (It’s no coincidence that I’m pushing these lessons the most, while his younger-born, more accommodating mother is much more likely to acquiesce to his demands without question.) And other families might have put up with his behavior more than with a girl’s because of sexism and thoughtlessness.

      But that’s not our family. Maybe our little boy will end up being a leader type–and maybe having learned to word things in a more patient, kinder way will make people happier to follow him wherever he leads.

  3. Andrea Pound

    Yes, I very much agree. Like many successful folks who want to help others, Ms. Sandberg has attempted to understand her own path to success and then advocates it as a formula than can be applied generally. Leadership doesn’t have a specific profile, and the best way I can think of to cultivate more leaders (female or otherwise) is to recognize this! Success is a partnership between the individual and their world: in order for leaders to lead, others must recognize and support their ability to do so. When we provide feedback and encouragement, we build leaders. My two cents, anyhow.

  4. Sarah

    I think you are missing the point a bit. The Ban Bossy concept is based on the idea that boys and girls who show the same exact qualities (independent, confident, intelligent) are judged differently for them. In boys, those qualities set them apart as natural leaders, and those are definitely good qualities for a leader to have. What Ban Bossy points out is that a girl with the same exact natural leadership qualities is deemed “bossy.” Why is it awesome when boys show these traits but the same traits are unattractive or undesirable in girls? It is not that girls are bossy and boys are not; it is that girls are judged differently for possessing natural leadership skills and constantly told by our culture that these skills are unattractive and unfeminine. I don’t think anyone is arguing that being bossy is okay; this movement is about thinking through the word choices we make and looking at how the words we use reinforce the gender discrimination that is all over our culture and our language. I don’t see it as “shielding” girls from criticism; I see it as evaluating why certain qualities are lauded in boys and reviled in girls, and making an effort to change how we speak about those qualities in girls.

    I also think it’s a great thing to identify children who seem to have natural leadership abilities, and to encourage those abilities. So many children cave to peer pressure and do stupid, silly things in the hopes of fitting in. I would think that encouraging a child to be a leader, not a follower, would give him/her the strength and confidence to refuse to participate in questionable behaviors just because his/her friends are doing it. And I don’t see it as buttonholing a child at all, because every profession will need leaders. You aren’t telling the child they have to fun for president someday; you are telling the child that they have natural skills that set them apart from others and will help them in any field they choose.

  5. Shawna McComber

    Bravo Audi! That is so spot on and well said. As someone who spent decades working with children, I think that they quite often teach each other many important lessons and one such lesson is that most of the time they will squash bossy behaviour. If a bossy individual does come along and hold sway, he or she eventually finds that unless there are other and better qualities than the bossiness, he/she will easily be replaced by the next bossyboots who comes along.

    I do think that the term bossy is misapplied and misused and often applied to girls who are passionate, charismatic or have a vision they are determined to see through. That doesn’t necessarily make them the leader of their group nor does it mean they have any intention of leading. If a creative vision is involved I think that is quite different from the person who tries to or succeeds in directing the actions and choices made socially by a particular group.

  6. Jenny

    I think part of the point of the “Ban Bossy” campaign is that the word “bossy” is misapplied. So, yes, the word itself refers to behavior that should be discouraged in everyone, as you say. But in practice, that word gets applied more frequently to girls who are displaying confidence, self-assertion, and strength that are actually positive and productive but which our culture finds distasteful in girls and women. And so the word becomes a way to discipline those girls into more socially acceptable and stereotypically feminine behaviors, like passivity, self-negation, extreme modesty, etc.. And that kind of disciplining does keep girls from developing to their full potential, as leaders and otherwise.
    As a young girl, I was called bossy, but I was not “domineering, authoritarian, and over bearing.” I was bright, vocal, and passionate. But I learned quickly that if I wanted people to like me, then I should keep my mouth shut, and also that getting people to like me was more important than anything else. Those have been hard lessons to unlearn in my adulthood. Maybe I’m in the minority in being so influenced by”feedback” as a young girl, but I think that I’d have been better off if the adults in my life had been more mindful about how they responded to girls’ early expressions of enthusiasm and self confidence.

  7. Karolyn

    I like and agree with a lot of the points made in this essay, and I
    especially appreciate your defense of girls’ resilience and of the
    importance of feedback — getting it, and learning from it. But I think
    that you have overlooked the way that the word “bossy” is often used
    imprecisely as an epithet to put girls down, regardless of whether their
    behavior is truly bossy or just assertive or garden-variety standing up
    for themselves or, indeed, true leadership behavior.

    Sandberg, I don’t think that banning a word that is used as a weapon is a
    particularly effective tactic. And like you, I don’t think that a
    single approach can possibly work for all girls. So I don’t have a
    suggestion, really. But I will be more likely, personally, to introduce
    my daughter and my students to Tina Fey’s Bossypants essays than to
    Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign.

  8. ballewal

    I feel like I should search out one of the slow clap gifs to post here because you completely and totally took what was in my brain bothering me about this campaign and put it into words better than I could have. So, thank you. I also have an issue with Sandberg’s “lean in” crap but I’ll save that for another day.

  9. KbfromFeministe

    Count me on the list of people saying-the point here is not that girls and boys both hear that they are bossy but girls can’t handle it. The point is the double standard, and that these girls aren’t bossy, they’re just being told not to talk. The boys doing the exact same thing aren’t called bossy. So, while I do think that we need to deal with the whole double standard instead of just the word, your post really kinda does miss the point.

  10. YesGrrrl

    Add me to the list of people who are discouraged because the point is being missed here (Sandberg’s point being that the same behavior is encouraged in boys, and named/shamed for girls). You can’t compare an experienced CEO’s bad leadership with what 5-year-olds are doing on the playground. Maybe you don’t agree with the wording, but we are trying to protect girls’ instinctual social behaviors and skills from being squashed.

    I know that when I was young, I hid my light and was embarrassed to speak up or share my good grades or accomplishments. And I know now it was a social / gender construct of our age that is/was very common among girls my age, and I hope my young nieces will not feel half as much shame or worry about how they appear to others. In fact, I hope they BOSS THE PANTS out of whoever they meet! GO GIRLS!

  11. Lisa Wong

    I agree with a lot of what you’ve said here, Audi, about how true bossiness is an undesirable behaviour, and that there might be too much emphasis placed on this one word. In fact, when I discussed this campaign with my boyfriend, we both agreed that part of learning to deal with being mis-labeled “bossy” is to thicken one’s skin.

    However, there it is: the issue of being mis-labeled “bossy.” Recently my friend called my boyfriend and I “the bossy couple” whenever we all hang out because she felt like we called all the shots when it came to making plans. I shrugged it off because what she meant by “bossy” was me saying something like “We can go to xyz. Does that sound good to you?” Or “Why don’t we…?” It’s sort of steering us to a group consensus, with the opportunity for them to speak up if they don’t find the suggestion amenable. 🙂

    Being called bossy should prompt some self-reflection, but if the result is that you don’t think the label applies, it’s best to shrug it off.

  12. PolarSamovar

    Amen, sister.

    I must also dispute the idea that the word “bossy” is gender-specific. The last time I heard it was when my sister-in-law applied it to her son, and she was none too pleased.

  13. Anne

    I’m an educator who works with children in elementary school. I too was concerned by the “ban bossy” campaign. I felt like you articulated something that has been bothering me about this latest campaign. Spot on! I especially like your bit on resilience.

    In the classroom, children who are “bossy” are typically struggling to find a way to express their needs in a way that is respectful to other children and adults. This is tough stuff! Of course, we shouldn’t call boys or girls “bossy.” No one, boys or girls, children or adults, should be insulted! We use our words to build other people up.

    Perhaps the most effective way to help girls AND boys is to model, practice, and encourage leadership. When we see a child acting in a bossy way, we can coach that child in perspective taking, problem solving, and reflective thinking.

    I suppose that doesn’t make a great tag line, but that’s how to teach behavior. For people, really interested in this topic, I’d recommend Michelle Garcia Winner’s work on social thinking.

  14. Courtney Landes

    I don’t think the word bossy should be banned, but I think we need to encourage adults to pause and think about whether they would criticize the behavior as bossy if it were coming from a boy before they tell a girl she is being bossy. If the answer is yes, go for it. If not, maybe leave her alone.

  15. akb

    I’m with the camp that this is missing the point, and also think that Sandberg, while not my favorite, is an ally, so we should assume good intentions when we know this is a complex topic that she’s trying to put positive action into by coming up with any kind of campaign. I worry that had this been a male lead campaign, the tearing down may have been less, and instead, we might have taken what is a well intentioned if not perfectly executed idea, and built on it. So, I think thats what we should do, How can we take this nugget, this publicity, and this effort already spent, and use it for good, instead of being snide about execution?

  16. AudiSF

    The dissenting voices here seem to be saying mostly the same thing, so I’ll address them en masse. My post was focused on cases where the word bossy is being correctly applied, and was meant to point out that a blanket ban on a specific word backfires when the word is appropriate. If you want to launch a, “Learn How to Use English Words Correctly” campaign, I’m on board! And if you spearhead a “Don’t Apply Different Standards to Kids Based on Gender” crusade, I’ll fight right alongside you. Believe me, this is something I know about from firsthand experience. When I was about 7 years old I did poorly on a timed multiplication test and was told, by a female teacher no less, not to feel bad because, “girls aren’t as good at math as boys.” How did I respond? I became a damn SCIENTIST. Turned out that what I was bad at was timed memorization exams, not math. So in the end that crappy comment became my, “I’ll show YOU, asshole” rallying cry. The outcome depended more on me as an individual than the comment itself.

    I’m also skeptical about claims that the word bossy is most often associated with girls, as this has not been my personal experience. Is there any actual data on this? And frankly, so what if it’s true; boys also receive sexist comments all the time. How is it fair that little boys are told to “be a man” when they wish to express their feelings? How many boys are told that interests like cooking or fashion, or wearing pretty dresses, are pursuits reserved for girls? Unfortunately, adults say all sorts of things that affect kids in ways they may or may not intend, but at some point it’s up to the individual not to let those comments color their entire lives once they reach adulthood. To me it seems off the mark to focus a discussion of gender bias on a single word, though I understand the desire to boil the idea down to a simple phrase (aimed, no doubt, at people who are too ignorant to either use the word bossy correctly or to even understand the concept of gender bias — in which case they’re probably a lost cause already). I just think the whole campaign comes off as making girls seem to have much thinner skin than we often do, and perpetuates the notion that we need to be coddled through life.

    • Jenny

      I was interested to see whether there was any data about the gendered associations of “bossy.” I found this post by an applied linguist that provides just such data:

      I think it does matter that we have a word used specifically to shame girls out of self-assertion and into silence. I agree that boys are also harmed by gender stereotypes (and specific words, most of which criticize any seemingly feminine attributes and so are just further evidence of general misogyny in the language applied to children). But “bossy” discourages girls from adopting roles that might lead to more personal and professional success, and that props up all sorts of inequality, including the enduring wage gap. I don’t see that gendered slurs used against boys hurt them in this precise way.

    • Genevieve

      I’m not a fan of Sandberg, her ideas, or this campaign, really. But I really take exception to a number of the sentiments in the comment above–for one thing, I don’t know why your specific experience with being insulted by a teacher and ending up successful anyway is relevant to the question of how to make gender biases less harmful to children. But most of all I have a problem with this statement: “frankly, so what if it’s true; boys receive sexist comments all the time.” Are you serious? The fact that boys are subject to and limited by gender stereotypes means it doesn’t matter when that happens to girls? That is a completely spurious argument that suggests, as many people have already noted, that you really miss the underlying point of this campaign or of the general discussion of how subtle things like language carry a lot of our biases and can be more influential (in good or bad ways) than we think. As someone who was what you might term “think-skinned” as a child, in the sense that I was both easily pleased and easily hurt by other people, very attuned to social signals, extremely verbal, concerned with how I seemed to others, and eager to please, I would have benefited a lot from some of my teachers and other authority figures being more conscious and careful about both the words of praise and the words of reprimand they used. I’m not the kind of person who necessarily reacts combatively to discouragement, has a “rallying cry,” etc., and that’s not something I consider a fault. If we want to end up with leaders who have ALL the best qualities (including assertiveness, creativity, flexibility, responsiveness to criticism, resilience, etc.) and to include among our leaders people from groups that have traditionally been shut out of the top ranks of their fields, we have to do a little more than just keep trucking along the way it’s always been done and assume that people who are tough enough will come out all right in the end.

      Finally, I appreciate Jenny sending some data, below, though I’m sure there is more work to be done in quantifying this kind of thing.