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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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Why Erik thinks it’s wrong to pardon Alan Turing – and why Kira doesn’t agree.

Alan Turing


News came through today that Alan Turing, the mathematician and computer pioneer,
is to be pardoned by the UK government for offences under public decency laws of the 1950s.

In short, Turing, being both gay and a high-profile figure, became a victim of official persecution following his successful exploits as a WW2 codebreaker, leading to his agreeing to undergo chemical castration. Not surprisingly, given this abysmal treatment, he committed suicide in 1954, two years after his arrest.

The reaction to the pardon has been mixed, with some activists welcoming it and others pointing out the unfairness of rehabilitating Turing while ignoring other, less illustrious men* who fell foul of the authorities in the same way. While this second view seems a fair one in many ways, one suspects that Turing was singled out because of his brilliance and fame; in turn, it would seem reasonable to single him out for rehabilitation. I don’t see a major problem with that aspect of the story.**

What I do find repellent is the sheer hypocrisy of the authorities in seeking to benefit from linking themselves with Turing. Let’s not pretend there’s anything altruistic in this ‘pardoning’ lark; Turing is a gay icon, a symbol of British cunning and fortitude in wartime, and a man famously wronged. He has been voted on to lists of the Greatest Britons, and if he were alive today there is no doubt he would be feted as one of the UK’s greatest achievers. The government is well aware of this, and so the idea to pardon Turing comes less as the righting of a decades-old wrong and more as a means to curry favour with a public increasingly liberal on issues of gay rights.

Let’s consider who benefits from this. The present government, clearly, in underlining its liberal credentials. Journalists, perhaps, in having something that appears vaguely controversial to write about. And Turing’s descendants? Wait…… no, there were no descendants, and the man himself is dead now for almost six decades.   So what was the pardon actually for? Just so that the authorities of the present day can engage in a mutual back-slap about how progressive we all are?

Turing deserves better than this. Rather than attempting to rewrite history through a royal pardon, surely a more fitting approach would have been to celebrate his life, first of all, and then to memorialise his sufferings. Let the conviction stand, and let the UK remember, with shame, how it treated a man who dared to live outside the social mores of his time.

* As far as I’m aware, the anti-gay laws of the time applied only to men.

** Besides, given the UK’s long history of influentiapeople having gay relationships and in many cases getting away without arrest, I suspect the persecution of Alan Turing resulted in part from his other attributes, as a difficult, “different”, sensitive, Indian-born atheist: all factors which made him a target for bullying. And most damning of all, he refused to apologise or ‘repent’ after his arrest; one can imagine it was this which most enraged the authorities of the time.

-Erik

I admit, I am a strong advocate for LGBTQ people. I often believe that the right to one’s choice of sexual orientation should never be interfered with by the state. Jack Andraka, a teenage boy who made leaps in the research for cancer detection highlighted my attention on the case of Alan Turing. Alan is Jack’s idol as they share several similarities, 1. They’re both brilliant minds and 2. They are both homosexuals. There is however one huge difference in the both of them, Jack would never be legally prosecuted for being gay as Alan had once been because it’s no longer a crime to be homosexual.

Erik had raised an interesting point to this topic. Instead of just applauding the royal prerogative of mercy as the majority have done, he had curiously pointed out why it’s wrong to pardon the poor chap. I agree with him, that the issue seems to have been politicised, as many things are. It’s inevitable, politicians will get their hands in anything if it meant publicity and more support for them (even their secretaries’ shirts, but that’s another point *winks*)

Rather than to see it as a politicised issue, I would be glad just to see the man being pardoned, even if he has been dead for more than half a century. Sure, it doesn’t change much but it does show a progress for the LGBTQ community. I would rather see it as that, than to see it as a means to show how the current UK government that they are more liberal about gay rights now. Seeing how this would never happen in my own country, to see it elsewhere is enough to restore my faith that somewhere, there is still a growing acceptance for the LGBTQ folks.

Also, Merry Christmas, everyone! 🙂

– Kira

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My Heroes (1): Larry Walters, the Lawnchair Pilot

A man can’t just sit around

Okay. So Tolstoy, with his airy-fairy notions of “being”* might not have approved, but these were the words of my hero Larry Walters in June 1982.

The occasion was his arrest, in Long Beach, California, for operating an unlicensed aircraft. The aircraft in question was a homemade one, comprising 40 weather balloons, a stout rope and a garden chair; the pilot a Vietnam veteran and one-time wannabe pilot who just got tired of “sitting around”.

Walters’ plan was to float up to a height of about 30 feet, peacefully drift over houses and gardens for a few hours, then let himself down gently in a field. To this end he bought the helium-filled balloons from an army surplus store, rigged up his impromptu flying machine and made sure to pack his camera, some sandwiches and a BB gun to pop the balloons one by one on his descent.

In the event, the balloons proved to be much stronger than he had predicted: instead of floating, the contraption shot up precipitately to about 16,000 feet, and Walters lost his glasses and his gun in the process. Fortunately he had also brought a two-way radio and was able to alert the aviation authorities, who failed to see the funny side but at least ensured there were no collisions with more conventional aircraft. He eventually came down in some power lines, stumbled out of his chair and was promptly arrested and fined.

It’s easy to focus on the amusing parts of this story, and hilarious they are too. However, on a deeper level Walters’ exploits deserve respect, in my opinion. Here was an ordinary man, living a humdrum life, who one day took the decision to challenge himself. He made a few crazy plans, broke a few rules, and ended up doing something amazing, outlandish, unprecedented. Something that only Icarus and arguably a select few others have ever come close to achieving. And Icarus didn’t exist.

Icarus also got caught upon landing. But not by the LA police department.

Tragically, Larry Walters never recovered from the excitement of his lawnchair flight, and took his own life a decade later. But I like to think he died a richer, more deeply fulfilled person than if he had simply bowed to convention and continued to “be”.

Erik

Here’s the fullest account of Walters’s story: http://www.check-six.com/Crash_Sites/Walters-BalloonRide.htm

And here’s another, with photos: http://www.markbarry.com/lawnchairman.html

* Sorreh, Lev. Sorreh, Kira. I didn’t really mean that. Just liked the words “airy-fairy” 🙂

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Turtles

Turtles

I’m too tired to write. Have some turtles.