Bossy

Words are powerful things. One little word can bring up a whole web of allusions, assumptions, memories… Cultural things, and individual things.

I mean, think of “bossy” right now. Yup, that’s right. Bossy. What image springs to mind?

What did you get? Maybe it was that annoying primary-school teacher you recall telling you exactly what to do and how to do it? Or someone from your current circle of friends who has a tendency to over-organise everyone? Or a boss or manager who manages to annoy everyone just by giving instructions?

Here’s another thing. Was it a woman? Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook thinks it probably was. And she has gone on record that she thinks the word “bossy” should be banned in the workplace for this reason:

Every woman I know, particularly the senior ones, has been called too aggressive at work. We know in gender blind studies that men are more aggressive in their offices than women. We know that. Yet we’re busy telling all the women that they’re too aggressive. That’s the issue.

I suspect she is right in saying that most of us associate the word “bossy” with females (i.e. women or indeed girls), but surely there are plenty of male equivalents, aren’t there? Well, take “jerk”, for example:

I think [jerk is] less male than bossy is female. And it doesn’t correlate with leadership. Jerk is being a jerk, and women can be jerks, too. But this is about leadership. A woman who works at Facebook sent me her daughter’s report card this week, which said, ‘X has a tendency to be bossy’.

Fair enough. Women certainly can be jerks. But do they get called jerks as often? And what about the plethora of other words – asshat, twat, wanker and many stronger ones – that are applied every day to men all over the English-speaking world? Bossy really does sound pretty mild by comparison.

If Sandberg’s issue is the comparatively low – very low – percentages of women at the top of the corporate world, then certainly I can see how she might feel that sniping about the leadership styles of those women doesn’t exactly encourage more women to seek promotion. But I’d be wary of any suggestion that those women are delicate creatures who require special “kid-glove” treatment in order to survive. We’re talking CEOs and top management here. These are the winners in the rat-race, the ones who’ve already achieved stratospheric status and a salary to match. And if it is indeed still harder to win that particular race as a woman, then surely the likes of Sandberg should be particularly able to withstand a bit of sniping?

And if someone – male or female – is overly controlling and/or aggressive, then I can’t see any problem with calling them bossy. Perhaps not to their face, but if this is an accurate descriptor then I definitely don’t think it should be discouraged – let alone put into the same “banned” category as racial slurs. At least not until all criticism is similarly banned. And I doubt that Sandberg, or any other manager, would wish to go so far!

But there’s more. While on the one hand wanting to ban the word bossy, Sandberg’s fellow campaigners seem entirely happy to push the concept of bossy as a good one for leadership (, like Jill Filipovic here, writing in the Guardian).

To be fair to Sandberg, I’m not sure she’s gone that far, and her advice to girls and teachers strikes a more balanced note: for example, few would argue with the notion of teachers calling equally on boys and girls to contribute in class, or with encouraging girls to run for leadership positions while in school. Some of the other bits of advice, however, could be more contentious. Like this one:

Stop Apologizing Before You Speak:
Girls often introduce opinions with apologies (“I’m not sure if this is right, but…”). Others use upspeak to make statements sound like questions (“Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader? He believed in peaceful protest?”). Pay attention to the little ways you might be making yourself smaller when you speak up in class, like playing with your hair, saying you “kind of” think something, asking if what you just said “makes sense,” or speaking so softly that no one can hear you.

Some of these things are definitely not helpful, like inflecting sentences upwards at the end (boys do this too, sometimes, and it’s annoying whoever it is!), or indeed “apologising” for speaking. But what about phrasing a statement as a genuine question? Something like “Do you think we should…?” or “Maybe you’d all prefer if we….?” Being able to consult others and agree on things as a group is all part of growing into adulthood; if girls are doing it naturally then isn’t that a strength?

And I think we’d all agree that being able to consult and delegate is a good quality in a manager. Even when there’s something that needs doing immediately, it’s possible to avoid the appearance of being bossy. Compare “Now that we’re all here, shall we start the meeting?” and “Would it be possible to pop round to my office for a quick chat” with “We will start the meeting now” and “Please come to my office”. Things will get done either way; it’s just that in the first two examples the boss comes over as friendly and humane, and in the latter two he/she appears high-handed, abrupt – and, dare I say it? – bossy.

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