Calling Little Girls 'Bossy' Today Shames Tomorrow's Leaders

The playground epithet effectively hides success from young girls seeking to win.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Mar 12, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Shannon Kelley writes about the intersection of politics, pop culture, and feminism. She lives in California.

When I was a little girl, I liked to direct. I orchestrated plays starring the neighborhood kids that we performed in my backyard. I organized hopscotch tournaments. And I was called "bossy" more than once.

There was never any doubt this was an insult.

So, in the interest of all the well-organized, socially developed little girls of tomorrow, I’m intrigued by the new initiative to ban the word, launched by Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg in partnership with Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chavez and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice—and a little help from Beyoncé.

Sandberg has become a somewhat polarizing figure since writing Lean In, a book with advice for women on how to succeed in corporate America. She is, after all, a privileged, wealthy, white woman whose best-selling “feminist manifesto” attributed the gender disparity in leadership roles more to individual choices than to the very real structural barriers that block advancement for so many.

So it's no surprise that Sandberg is taking her share of flack for the "Ban Bossy" campaign too. Critics contend that women have bigger fish to fry than the word “bossy,” and a better strategy might be to reclaim the word, making it a badge of honor instead of an insult. Fair enough.

And yet the ripple effects of the word are undeniable, particularly when we're talking about girls. When a girl taking charge is labeled “bossy” for behavior that when exhibited by a boy might be called "leadership," it's clear understanding that “bossy” is bad. There is no nuance; the tidy admonishment says there’s something wrong with taking the lead, and people won’t like you if you do. It’s a label girls learn pretty quickly to avoid it by keeping quiet and backing down when challenged.

It’s not just the word that’s a problem: It’s the gendered expectations encapsulated in it. We think we’re beyond these biases, but research shows that even when we think we’re treating boys and girls equally, we’re not. Sandberg cites studies showing that teachers who think they call on girls as frequently as boys actually favor boys.

The socialization takes hold rapidly: According to "Ban Bossy," by middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys, and girls are twice as likely to worry that leadership roles will make them seem “bossy.” This happens around the same time that girls who excelled in science and math during elementary school suddenly seem to lose interest.

These biases persist into adulthood. Where a man is considered “assertive,” a woman is considered that other b-word. Even some of the most successful women in the world shy away from the label “ambitious.”

According to Sandberg, numbers tell the story.

“Women do 66 percent of the work in the world,” she said on Good Morning America, but “make 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property. We are 50 percent of the population. We are 5 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs. We are 17 percent of the board seats. We are 19 percent in Congress.”

In the face of such statistics, a splashy campaign devoted to banning a word might seem an outsize effort directed at a trivial goal, but I’m not so sure. A girl who’s called bossy is left to her own devices to fight back—if she’s up for a battle at all—or she turns silent, questions herself. And anyway, why can't we have both a new awareness of "bossy" and work to even out the disparity in leadership roles? With a little more of the former now, we might need less of the latter when today's kids are all grown up and running the show.

When we’re young, articulately combating something as gnarled and ingrained as gender norms is probably a bit beyond our capabilities, particularly if we’re in the middle of organizing a hopscotch tournament. If I were transported back to my schoolgirl days of being called bossy on the playground, I think I’d be pretty happy to have a comeback—cheesy marketing slogan or not—at the ready.

“To quote Beyoncé,” I might have said, “I’m not bossy—I’m the boss.”