Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and the Girl Scouts recently declared a campaign to “Ban Bossy,” complete with Beyonce, Jane Lynch and Condoleezza Rice on video, a website full of tips and thousands of fans who pledged to stamp out that B word for girls.
But the effort is also being questioned on a variety of fronts, including its focus on a word that not everyone considers damaging, and for encouraging a behavior that not everybody believes equals leadership, as Ban Bossy contends.
Harold Koplewicz, who heads the nonprofit Child Mind Institute, went in search of evidence that the word “bossy” discourages girls from becoming leaders. He asked first-graders and sixth-graders at Hunter College Elementary School for gifted children how they feel about it.
Save for a couple of “outliers,” he found that most didn’t love the term bossy, “but they didn’t love the word leader, either.” The kids also told him that acting bossy carries a high risk of not being liked. “They thought that being liked was better than being a leader,” Koplewicz said.
The Ban Bossy campaign cites a study by the Girl Scout Research Institute in which girls reported being twice as likely as boys to worry that leadership roles would make them seem bossy. The fear of being seen as bossy is put forth as a primary reason girls resist such roles.
Alicia Clark, a Washington, D.C., psychologist whose specialties include parenting and couples counseling, lauded the campaign’s suggested alternatives to bossy and ideas for fostering leadership in girls, but she sees a broader sense of social anxiety at play.
“Girls experience fears and inhibitions about social acceptance more acutely, in the form of stress,” she said. In some cases, “Mean, bossy girls, as my 13-year-old daughter describes them, are closer to being bullies than they are leaders. And we know that bullies fundamentally feel insecure, hate themselves for it and assert themselves over other insecure people as a way of garnering a sense of control and dominance. This is not leadership. This is intimidation.”
Caroline Price, a 17-year-old high school junior in Andover, Mass., loved Sandberg’s book, “Lean In,” and admires many of the women who have jumped on Ban Bossy. “But to me bossy isn’t the same as leadership. Bossy people aren’t people you want to follow. Leaders inspire us to be better versions of ourselves. Bossy means ‘my way or the highway.’ Leadership is when someone listens and encourages others around them,” she said.
Sometimes, Price added, “leaders aren’t just the loudest — the bossiest. There are different kinds of leaders — and some lead more quietly, or by consensus or by example and so on.”
Like critics of Sandberg’s Lean In movement urging working women to strive for leadership positions, the backlash against Ban Bossy is multifaceted.
Some detractors think girls and women of the bossy ilk should “own” the word rather than demand to be free of it, not unlike the way “queer” has been reclaimed as celebratory among many people who are LGBTQ, for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning their sexual identities.
Sandberg, Rice and other celebrity supporters of Ban Bossy recall how being called bossy made them feel diminished as kids and dinged their self-esteem, but what about kids who are not bossy, but are bossed around?
“The people who are bossy, sometimes they have an attitude,” said Rose Wladis, 11, a Girl Scout and fifth-grader in New York (not at Hunter). “I think being a leader is kind of showing people what to do, but being nice about it and encouraging people and, like, setting an example for them. But bossiness is just telling someone what to do.”
Koplewicz said research shows teen girls are more likely than boys to have symptoms of mental health issues, some related to low self-esteem. Yet girls also tend to do better than boys in school, getting better grades and earning degrees in higher numbers. Despite their academic success, women hold only a fraction of top executive positions, a point “Lean In” emphasizes.
But were female executives seen as bossy growing up, and did they suffer under the weight of the word? “At the moment there is no direct research that categorizes the word bossy as dangerous,” said Koplewicz, who generally supports Sandberg’s campaign to promote female leadership but not so much the focus on the lone word.
The focus wasn’t lost on Hillary Rodham Clinton. She spoke to a gathering of book publishers last week about a memoir she’s working on covering her years as U.S. secretary of state. Clinton threw out “Bossy Pantsuit” as a possible title, riffing on Tina Fey’s best-selling “Bossypants,” then she paused and earned laughs for her punch line: “We can no longer say one of those words.”
Maura Ciammetti, 26, works for a small technology company in suburban Philadelphia. She said being called bossy at times in college and work situations allowed her to “step back and assess how I am approaching a situation. Was I too forceful? Am I listening to my peers? Am I looking at the big picture? Why is this person challenging me with this label?”
Instead of banning the word, Ciammetti said, what “if we taught girls how to deal with their peers calling them names and other situations of adversity.”
Julia Angelen Joy, 42, a Girl Scout troop leader and mother of four in Boise, Idaho, works in public relations and marketing, where lots of women dominate and where she has encountered many a bossy female boss. She calls them “chictators.” She can’t get behind the Ban Bossy project.
“Bossy can mean two things — a strong leader or a domineering nag. Using the word in a campaign is a double-edge sword,” Joy said.
Joy, who is president of “FemCity Boise,” part of the national Femfessionals business network for women, said she was a bossy teen and has two bossy girls. When her 16-year-old was 11, her mom forced her to write a letter of apology to her school principal and others for participating in a “mean girl situation” of intimidation and control against other girls.
“I told her as a woman, as a mother, as a sister, as a wife, none of this is acceptable,” said Joy, who suggests a tweak to the Ban Bossy rallying cry: “How about Ban Bossy, support kindness.”
As Joy sees it, and it’s likely Sandberg would agree (she declined an interview with The Associated Press): “There’s a middle to all of this. The middle is a little bit of restraint and a little bit of kindness. We want that for all of our children, male or female.”