The Lean In Campaign and its founder, Sheryl Sandberg, have launched a new initiative to “ban bossy.”
When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.
Here’s why I don’t like this notion:
There is a difference between bossiness and good leadership. There is a difference between being bossy and being assertive, or being opinionated.
Bossy is “because I said so” and “I want my own way.” A good leader takes the needs of others into consideration. Good leadership is figuring out how everyone can have as much fun as possible. Good leadership is “hey, let’s take a vote.” And sure, it’s hard for young children to discern the difference, but that’s why adults need to learn how to discourage bossiness without discouraging leadership. You know: “Hey, Jimmy, I like that you’re sharing your ideas, but let’s make sure everyone gets a turn,” or “I know you want to be goalie, Susie, but Mary wants to be goalie, too. What do you think is the best way to solve this problem?”
It might seem as though I am arguing semantics, but there are differences and they matter. Yes, girls are often discouraged from being assertive more than boys are and this is a problem. In my professional experience, I’ve noticed more female bosses than male ones who give off a “bossy” attitude of “don’t question me” and “because I said so,” especially in my younger (i.e. no longer on my resume) days. They were pretty terrible bosses because they were impatient and appeared to be more focused on having people recognize that they held the title of leader rather than on leading well. There was a real defensiveness there, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it stemmed from being stifled in girlhood.
However, this does not mean that “bossiness” (interrupting, leading with selfish intent, not giving others a chance) shouldn’t be discouraged. We just need to make sure certain negative behaviors are discouraged equally in boys and girls.
Which leads me to one of my biggest issues with what I am increasingly seeing described as “feminism” (and, like Ferris Bueller, I don’t care for -isms in general) — encouraging bad behavior in girls in the name of equality. Yes, girls are called bossy more often than boys and that isn’t right, but if we want an even playing field, let’s encourage the boys to rise up to the level of expectation placed on girls, rather than endorsing women stooping to succeed. If women are held to higher standards of respectability, then let those be the standards for everyone.
So rather than “banning bossy” and making it verboten to criticize girls for ill behavior, why not just make sure we are using the same standards to critique and praise girls and boys? I say discourage “bossiness” in boys as much as in girls, and for either gender, encourage the child to parlay a desire to take charge into an opportunity to practice good leadership skills.