Should We Ban the Word Bossy?

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Sheryl Sandberg thinks so. Do you agree?

By Jessica Stillman (Editor, Women 2.0)

It’s ‘the B-word,’ used to put women in their place and limit the roles it’s “appropriate” for them to take. You know it, right?

No, not that one. Another one.

We all know that one nasty, gendered insult, but according to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez, who wrote a recent WSJ article on the subject, there’s actually another such B-word. What is it? Bossy.

In the complete piece, which is well worth a read in full, the two highly successful women reminisce about being called ‘bossy’ as little girls before they unpack the implicit judgements and expectation conveyed by the word. They write:

Behind the negative connotations lie deep-rooted stereotypes about gender. Boys are expected to be assertive, confident and opinionated, while girls should be kind, nurturing and compassionate. When a little boy takes charge in class or on the playground, nobody is surprised or offended. We expect him to lead. But when a little girl does the same, she is often criticized and disliked.

How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?

Calling little girls ‘bossy’ sends subtle (or sometimes maybe not so subtle) messages that they are meant for quiet, supporting roles, not leadership ones, the authors claim, before rounding up a variety of studies and personal anecdotes illustrating the negative effects of the word on girls’ ambitions and chances of reaching their full potential. They end with a call to action:

It’s time to end the gendered speech that discourages girls from an early age. So the next time you hear a girl called “bossy,” do what CBS anchor Norah O’Donnell advised: Smile, take a deep breath and say, “That girl’s not bossy. She has executive leadership skills.

Sandberg and Chavez aren’t the only prominent people getting behind the #banbossy campaign. They’ve also enlisted a host of A-listers including Beyoncé, Jennifer Garner, Jane Lynch, Diane Von Furstenberg and Condoleezza Rice to appear in a PSA promoting the idea. Check it out below to hear Beyoncé announce, “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.” Awesome!

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How else can we reshape the subtle ways we discourage girls from leading?

jstillmanJessica Stillman (@entrylevelrebel) is an editor at Women 2.0 and a freelance writer with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She writes a daily column for Inc.com, contributes regularly to Forbes and has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM and Brazen Careerist, among others.