Sheryl Sandberg and Beyonce Ban the Other B-word

Sheryl Sandberg and her celebrity friends Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer Garner and others want us to abandon the use of the word bossy.

If you ask Sheryl Sandberg and her celebrity entourage, the term bossy is a debilitating five-letter word that discourages young women from becoming leaders because it sends the wrong message about them.

Sandberg claims that young girls who are assertive are often called bossy, while young boys who possess the same qualities are considered leaders. And biases like these can perpetuate social injustices, particularly gender inequality in the workplace.

So, in theory, “banning bossy” appears to be a good idea. Restricting the use of a word that prohibits young women from aspiring to be their very best is commendable.

“But, what if a girl is…bossy?”

But is the word bossy really the issue or is it that we as women aren’t always seen as being fit to lead, but rather emotional, overbearing and dictator-like? Are we trying to cover up tyrannical behavior in young girls in the name of leadership and assertiveness?

The truth is, bossy isn’t the gender specific term Ms. Sandberg claims it to be. Since when did bossy exclude little boys? Chauvinistic, aggressive and angry behavior in men is rarely commendable. Despite what Sheryl and her team are saying, the word bossy isn’t simply used to mislabel determined and ambition women in positions of authority.

This feels like a forced feminist issue with no tangible metrics to hold it up. How does calling a girl bossy actually keep her from one day being a leader – especially if she really is living up its definition of being “highhanded, domineering, overly authoritative, dictatorial and abrasive?”

A Bossy History

As a young child, I was called bossy. Because I WAS bossy. At times I was a tyrant. I had perfectionist tendencies at the age of 7, and it was made most apparent during a church musical production.

My cousin was standing next to me during the performance. And when I caught him daydreaming instead of moving his arms like the rest us, I took it upon myself to elbow him in the side to make him straighten out! That wasn’t me looking out for the greater good of the performance. I was being downright bossy and trying to run the show. I needed to be checked.

Growing up, bossy was never used to describe little girls who were misdiagnosed as domineering while they were in actuality exercising their strong leadership abilities.

No, bossy was someone who approached leadership in a manner that girls and boys alike could not rally behind. Bossy referred to anyone who gave orders on command and had no justifiable reason for their self-elected “leader” title.

Children have to be taught the difference between right and wrong and what it truly takes to lead – like communication, honesty, a positive attitude and the ability to inspire others.

Redefining Bossy

It’s important to look at what the word is and isn’t.

Banning bossy would imply that all girls, no matter their behavior, are simply exercising assertiveness and aren’t being overpowering. Banning the word eliminates any need to evaluate a women’s attitude or how self-absorbed she might be. Little girls and boys alike need that type of evaluation.

It’s more reasonable to redefine how bossy is used rather than eliminate it completely. After all, Kelis did it back in 2006 with the release of her mega-hit “Bossy.”

The song was about empowerment of women. Bossy became a good thing. It paralleled “Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child and gave women a new anthem to play loud and a way to describe a killer outfit or monumental moment. It encouraged women to not be afraid to be strong and self-sufficient, not waiting for some basketball star or rapper to rescue them. It was the forerunner to Drake’s “Fancy” and Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls).” And when I hear the word bossy today, I immediately think of Kelis and want to do a shoulder bounce and “watch the beat go.”

Still, gender inequality exists and we have work to do.

So this is not an absolute objection to Ms. Sandberg’s efforts. I’m sure they come from a good place. There is a very obvious income gap among men and women in the workforce that needs to be addressed.

But it starts with helping women realize that they can be doctors, lawyers, engineers and physicists. It starts with finding ways to constantly reminding women that a man is not the only financial plan. Men overwhelmingly outnumber women in all but one of the top 10 most remunerative majors.

Banning bossy can’t be the first response to statistics like those cited on the banbossy.com website–one of them claiming that girls’ self-esteem will drop 3.5 times more than boys’ between elementary and high school. Nor can it really explain why, by middle school, girls are less interested than leading than boys.

Beyoncé ends the “Ban Bossy” PSA by saying “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss,” which just leaves everyone confused. Are you not being bossy as you declare yourself “the boss”?

As mentioned above, Kelis changed the meaning of the word back in 2006. We live in a culture where the meanings of words change often. We come up with phrases that we love and love to hate. Being ‘bossy’ and saying ‘I’m the boss’ are same thing, not necessarily holding the same negative connotation for adults as they do for children.

Some use the term bossy as a witty way of telling a woman that she’s a leader, independent and ambitious – that she is raising the stakes and letting people know that she is no one’s trophy. But at the same time, bossy can also be a word that lets little boys and girls (or men and women acting like boys and girls) know that they can’t just order people around in the name of leadership.

Banning the word bossy isn’t the right move. We need guidelines for our words and actions. We need words to help define what’s right and wrong. And young women and men need to be shown what true leadership looks like, as I did when I was 7 and thought it was okay to order everyone around. Girls and boys need to know that the most effective leaders don’t Frank Underwood their way into the White House.

Banning bossy doesn’t take away the opportunity for women to “lean in,” come to the table and be great future leaders. We need parameters to make a distinction between what a leader is and what a leader isn’t. As Vince Lombardi said, “Leaders aren’t born, they’re made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”