The XX Factor

Bossy Doesn’t Have to Be a Bad Word

Sheryl Sandberg is a boss. Why can’t she be bossy?

Photo by Eric Piermont/AFP/Getty Images

Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg’s manifesto for the well-heeled working woman, came out one year ago today—and Sandberg is marking the anniversary by teaming up with the Girl Scouts to wipe the word bossy from the lexicon. She’s recruited a sparkling ensemble of spokeswomen for her Ban Bossy project, including Condoleezza Rice, Jennifer Garner, Diane von Furstenberg, and Jane Lynch. The campaign’s crown jewel is Beyoncé, who appears at the end of a promotional video to announce, with a “what do you want from me” shrug, “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.”

With the combined might of, the Girl Scouts, and Queen Bey against it, bossy should look into early retirement options. The blitz is intense: Sandberg and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chavez also have editorials and interviews in the Wall Street Journal and Parade, and they’ve created a website, Facebook page, Twitter hashtag, and Instagram account to spread the word. (Not that word.) “Calling a girl ‘bossy’ not only undermines her ability to see herself as a leader, but it also influences how others treat her,” the two execs write in the WSJ. In one study they cite, sixth- and seventh-grade girls said they’d rather be perceived as “popular and well-liked” than “competent and independent.” (Their male classmates said the opposite.) Furthermore, Sandberg and Chavez claim, “a 2008 survey by the Girl Scouts of nearly 4,000 boys and girls found that girls between the ages of 8 and 17 avoid leadership roles for fear that they will be labeled ‘bossy’ or disliked by their peers.”

The “other B-word” has long been tangled up in gender stereotypes. You can read Tina Fey’s memoir Bossypants as an extended riff on how the world still takes issue with female leadership. (Fey’s humor is both a provocation and a mollification.) And according to Google Ngram stats from 2008, the most recent year available, bossy modified women four times as often as it did men in books. (The first OED citation of the word’s use, in 1882, involved “a lady manager who was dreadfully bossy.”) The label has a special, haunting significance for young girls, who can run up against it by talking loudly, giving instructions, or doing any of the other things boys do on the regular without raising eyebrows. (Also by riding the beat like a bicycle.) Sandberg underscores the double standard in her Parade interview:

I tell parents, instead of saying, “My daughter is bossy,” try, “My daughter has executive leadership skills.” I’ve never had anyone say that without laughing. Now say it for a boy: “My son has executive leadership skills.” There’s no humor in that sentence, which reveals the difference in our expectations. 

I would be troubled if a parent said that to me about her son or daughter with a straight face, but I see Sandberg’s point. Still, those expectations are unlikely to melt away because one bad adjective has fallen out of style. The word bossy is like a wrist-slap punishing the belief that confidence, assertiveness, and a taste for organization and management can be feminine traits. Will banning it actually help adjust the retrograde thinking underneath, or will we just start to rely on other code words, like shrill, angry, or emotional to do the same minimizing work? 

That’s why I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to get rid of the B-word. When a piece of language accrues enough of a painful history that we can’t ignore it any longer, we usually have two options: retire or reclaim. Bossy seems like a great candidate for rehabilitation: It’s attached to a positive noun, boss, and using it to mean someone with “executive leadership skills” might help normalize the idea that women can be in charge. (Bossy also starts with a B, like Beyoncé, which already gives it a Boost.) Fey even started off the recovery process by naming her book Bossypants—we’re not supposed to see her character as evilly grasping but as a smart, capable woman wrestling with the biases embossing her boss crown. So, while I admire the sheer bossiness of a massive campaign designed to expunge the word bossy from our vocabularies, I don’t intend to stop using it, even if the feminist super-team tells me to. They’re not the boss of me.