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In a Word, Effort to Ban 'Bossy' is Misguided

by on March 24, 2014 6:00 AM

There are worse things than being called bossy.

Facebook Chief Operating Officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has teamed with the Girl Scouts of America in a campaign to ban the word bossy.

Citing a discouraging message and negative labeling for females who are seen as aggressive or "bossy," the mission is to support girls and women in their efforts to lead.

In many of the print and video interviews, Sandberg shares the story of a 9th grade teacher calling her bossy for what Sandberg perceived to be the same behaviors for which boys were labeled as leaders.

Sandberg has solicited the support of celebrities such as Beyonce and Condaleeza Rice to join her in her a national initiative to advocate for more opportunities and support of girls and women in leadership roles and to erase the word bossy from our collective vocabularies.

When I first heard about this effort to eliminate the word bossy, two things came to mind. First, there are worse things in life than being called bossy. Second, Harvard educated, summa cum laude, former Google executive and one of Time magazine's most influential people, Sheryl Sandberg, whose personal worth is reportedly in excess of a billion dollars, doesn't seem to have been harmed all that much by being called bossy.

Is adversity always a negative or does it sometimes provide us with motivation to success?

The banning of "bossy" came up in a conversation with my oldest daughter – a college graduate, successful professional and leader in her own right. We were driving to yoga together and she asked me if I had heard of the effort to ban the word. "You used to call me bossy right?" she asked. "That's because you were bossy," I responded.

One of my favorite kid stories was the afternoon when she was about six-years-old and set up a school in our family room. She immediately put her younger sister (age four) in the role of student. Big sister then proceeded to march little sister around with orders and directions in her very best teacher voice.

Even more amusing was her assignment of little brother (age six months) to the role of principal. He sat in his infant seat, oblivious to his administrative duties. None of her actual teachers had been particularly authoritative in their teaching style so it was interesting to see her interpretation of their leadership. (My daughter's female principal was also considerably more involved in the school activities than her sleeping brother.) She was all about bossy.

To me, bossy means telling other people what to do when you really don't have authority, or responsibility over that person. A sibling. A friend. A significant other. In other words, maybe that 9th grade teacher thought that Ms. Sandberg was asserting authority over others that she did not have.

Maybe she really was being bossy.

Although I admire Ms. Sandberg's willingness to stand with young women and to serve as a role model, I think this particular public relations campaign may have missed the mark.

I get the women's movement. I'm a little closer in age to the generation of women who paved the way for successful women in business, science, education and in politics than Ms. Sandberg. I vividly remember seeing a black and white news report of women burning their bras and having no idea why they were so angry about their underwear.

Later, I learned that women hadn't always had the same opportunities as men. I remember the discussions about the Equal Rights Amendment and gender discrimination in the workplace. I've read the studies that outline differences in take home salaries for women who do the same job as men and the continuing statistics on the limited number of women in executive positions in corporate America.

As the mother of daughters, I was keenly aware of the studies on participation in co-ed classrooms and how girls are often not given the same leadership opportunities as their male counterparts.

I also know that much of how we structure education in our culture is geared toward being able to sit at a desk and follow directions, write neatly and keep their desks organized, maintain an assignment book and remember to do homework. We know that boys mature later than girls and yet we expect them to perform at the same level as their female counterparts. Nationwide, universities are seeing decreases in enrollments for men. We label boys who show emotions as not quite tough enough and equate athleticism with leadership.

If we ban bossy, should we ban the word sissy too?

There is no question that words can hurt. A colleague from the early days of my career used to have a poem in her office. It outlined the premise behind Ms. Sandberg's mission to ban bossy. She's a bitch. He's a leader. She knew someone. He knew how to network. She is controlling. He is firm.

The list of differences in that poem pointed out that double standards that many perceive continue for women today. We've seen some offensive words become almost taboo because of a social movement directed toward respect and against discrimination.

If we are going to start a list, I have some excellent suggestions for words that should be permanently banned because of the message behind those words. In my opinion, there are much worse things to be called than bossy.

We are only as limited by the labels that others give us as we decide to be. Ask Sheryl Sandberg.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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