Banning 'bossy' encourages girls as leaders

Banning “bossy” encourages girls as leaders (credit: Michelle  Wan /Art Editor) Banning “bossy” encourages girls as leaders (credit: Michelle Wan /Art Editor)

Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg recently launched the Ban Bossy Campaign with Lean In and the Girl Scouts of America. The campaign seeks to stop people from calling young girls “bossy”, as the term is inherently gendered and always pejorative, and discourages the cultivation of leadership qualities in young girls. Notable participants include former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Beyoncé, as well as Jane Lynch.

Some critics of Ban Bossy claim that the campaign itself is ridiculous — that banning language is useless and does not effect change, that women should just deal with being called bossy, and that young girls shouldn’t be bossy anyway.

These particular criticisms miss the true purpose of the campaign. Ban Bossy seeks to make people understand that language has impact, most especially on young children, and that the cultural practice of discouraging young girls from pursuing leadership starts very early in children’s lives. The eradication of the word “bossy” will not end sexism in the United States; it’s just one word, and grown, professional women are not the target of the campaign.

The point of the campaign is that we use the word “bossy” to shame female children when they express themselves. Parents and teachers should curtail controlling or overly aggressive behavior in children while raising them to be functional adults, but when boys exhibit such tendencies, the usual response is something along the lines of “boys will be boys.” By this mindset, when boys act on aggression, they are manifesting a natural instinct.

When girls exhibit aggression, they are behaving in a way that is somehow shameful and to be discouraged.

This cultural tendency both encourages and excuses aggression in boys that can easily become violence in men, and teaches girls to censor themselves — to be smaller, quieter, and more compliant. This gendered disparity is what the Ban Bossy Campaign is trying to right.

Ban Bossy has an added importance for young girls of color in the United State as they grow up and begin to take leadership roles. While adult white women are at a disadvantage in the labor market, adult women of color are at an even greater one.

White women earn 77 cents for every dollar white men make, on average. Black women earn 64 cents for every dollar, and Latina women earn 55 cents, according to the Center for American Progress. The myriad of ways in which sexism and racism intersect in the United States means that young women of color need even more support in their development as young leaders.

It’s true that banning the word “bossy” itself will not have much cultural effect; but the campaign is important and necessary because it seeks to make people think about the way they use language, and all the implications that words can carry.