Advanced search
MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 12-Mar-14 12:42:37

Guest post: 'Ban Bossy' is all very well, but what about the other words that stifle girls' ambition?

Following the launch of Sheryl Sandberg's 'Ban Bossy' campaign - aimed at encouraging girls towards leadership - MN blogger and psychologist Stephanie Davies-Arai questions whether 'bossy' is the best place to start, and explores the other ways in which words are used to limit women and girls.

Do read her post and respond on the thread - is banning 'bossy' a pointless exercise? Or does it mark an important step in the fight against gender labels?

Stephanie Davies-Arai

Communicating With Kids

Posted on: Wed 12-Mar-14 12:42:37


Lead photo

Beyoncé is backing the 'Ban Bossy' campaign

So, Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice and Anna Maria Chávez have launched a campaign calling on us to 'Ban Bossy', and celebs from Beyoncé to Victoria Beckham are backing the cause. I have to admit, my first reaction was to snort – "We are not bossy, and to prove it we demand that the word is banned!" That slogan could only have been written by women so utterly immune to the word that they don’t notice the oxymoronic humour.

I'm not generally a fan of banning things, but then I’m not a fan of labels either. Sandberg hits the nail on the head when she says: "When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a 'leader'. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded 'bossy'.”

But why - out of all the potential candidates for words most likely to hold women back – has this one in particular been chosen? I can think of a few more off the top of my head: 'controlling', 'hysterical', 'emotional'… and that’s without venturing into the numerous words employed to shame women over their sexuality.

And it’s not just words used to criticise that oppress women, but words intended to praise. 'Empathic', 'caring' and 'beautiful': these words are insidiously manipulative, disguised as compliments.

Caring, helpful, kind - all put us in a strait-jacket of earning our right to exist through what we give to others; our value judged by how altruistic and unselfish we are. Of course they're lovely qualities in a person, but they're the same qualities that somehow paralyse us in the push for a promotion or in just making our voices heard.

If we are ever going to seriously challenge gender stereotypes, we need to forfeit the warm glow we get whenever we hear ourselves praised for having more empathy than men, and that lofty feeling that comes from occupation of the moral high ground. Empathy is great, but we are all – women and men - born with it. It’s one of those inbuilt qualities that enable us to survive as a species – praising a woman for her empathy is like praising her for breathing.

'Caring', 'helpful', 'kind' - all put us in strait-jacket. We earn our right to exist through what we give to others; our value is judged by how altruistic and unselfish we are. Of course they are lovely qualities in a person - but they are the same qualities that somehow paralyse us in the push for a promotion, or simply in making our voices heard.

Perhaps the quality that holds girls back the most is being deemed 'beautiful'. I was once in a relationship where my partner felt it necessary to continually gasp about how beautiful I was (I know, I know). I have never felt so insecure about both my looks and my value as a person in all my life. I began to see myself as decoration, a beautiful object, and I dreaded the day he noticed my imperfections for the first time.

We all reassure our girls of their ‘inner beauty’ and insist that they are beautiful, but the result is to reinforce the importance of a quality that is passive and mute. We never insist that our boys have inner beauty. It's part of a parent’s job is to embarrass their children with gushing praise, and it would be a grey old world if we never used words like 'beautiful', but use it too much and it starts to sound suspiciously like a demand.

When a woman is criticised - branded bossy, or controlling - at least she can get angry and fight back. Being on the receiving end of gushing praise and complimented for qualities like empathy and beauty keeps us stuck at the back of the room, letting others go first as we try not to frown unattractively or sit in a position that makes our thighs look fat.

So congratulations, ladies, on a bold campaign with a bold name; thanks for shouting it out unapologetically and for showing girls that it's okay to be a leader. But let’s not forget all those other words that circumscribe girls’ ambitions in more subtle ways: those words that come disguised as compliments.

By Stephanie Davies-Arai

Twitter: @cwknews

grimbletart Wed 12-Mar-14 13:14:51

Two other circumscribing words used about girls/woman never used about boys/men are feisty and bubbly. Feisty means spirited or even aggressive and it is one of those backhanded compliments that sound OK but actual imply you are not really acting as a good girl should. Who wants to employ a feisty woman - it would mean trouble wouldn't it? grin. Bubbly means vivacious but somehow makes it sound diminishing as in giggly and fluttery. Who wants to employ a bubbly woman? Strictly a lightweight grin.

Do people really see "bossy" as a gender specific word? We use it for both genders equally - as negative because it doesn't mean a leader (who would have the people skills not to justt order others about) it means a spoilt brat of either gender who demands everything be done their way, invents rules for the sake of it, and generally spoils a game other kids are enjoying playing collaboratively. Bossy doesn't mean "a girl taking a leadership role" - it means anyone of either gender who throws their weight around without authority to do so, and spoils other kids' fun.

SirChenjin Wed 12-Mar-14 13:27:51

Agree with MrTumbles.

Bossy is not a gender-specific word - and doesn't equate to being a good leader.

aliciagardner Wed 12-Mar-14 13:55:22

Agree with mr tumbles. It's this reason that I do t like this campaign - they chose the wrong word to ban!

aliciagardner Wed 12-Mar-14 13:56:00


buffy9 Wed 12-Mar-14 14:12:03

I disagree, I think that "bossy" definitely has gender specific overtones - I very rarely hear a young boy being called bossy, but with girls it often has an implication of her stepping 'out of line' in some way.

However, I fully agree that it is only one of many words that can have a damaging effect on our kids - IMO worse than beautiful is "pretty": that is without doubt only applied to girls and something I try to avoid as it really only applies to surface appearance. (You can, at a stretch, have a beautiful personality, or inner beauty: prettiness does not extend in the same way.)

I read something that said how automatic it has become, when we meet young girls, for the first thing we comment on to be about how they look, "Your dress is so pretty" or "Wow don't you look lovely" etc. I consider myself an educated informed feminist and I was horrified to discover how often I fall into this trap! Obviously nothing wrong with giving our girls and boys positive messages about the way they look, but consider how often girls have this commented on by strangers vs how often boys hear it.

Language is crucially important!

StealthPolarBear Wed 12-Mar-14 14:12:22

Was just coming on to say the same. I call both my children bossy from time to time and I tell both they are beautiful often

OhGood Wed 12-Mar-14 14:19:18

buffy that's interesting, will be looking out for how often I comment on girls' appearance v boys' qualities.

I am bossy, but I am the boss, so...

hootloop Wed 12-Mar-14 14:23:16

I have to say that I see plenty of bossy little boys, in fact I call my DS a bossy boots quite a lot.
And to be honest the bossiest member of our household is the cat - and we tell it so 'ooh bossy puss' is a regular phrase here.

BetterWithCheese Wed 12-Mar-14 14:49:04

I wonder if the bossy little girl thing is more prominent in North America. I grew up in Canada and there was a definite stereotype of the bossy, clever girl who no one likes, particularly on kids' tv shows.

There may also be an age/power aspect in how bossy is used. We often call children bossy because they lack the authority to tell others what to do. Women, even in positions of actual authority, can struggle with their level of perceived authority. Think of a very sexist man being told what to do by his female boss, if he perceives that she should not have authority over him as she is a woman then he is likely to dismiss her requests/demands as bossy.

Calling an adult bossy diminishes them and makes them seem childlike I agree - but used by or about a child it is not a gendered word in Nritish English usage, IMO. If nossy has to be banned so does "silly" as it is similarly a word from the world of childhood which warps if used about an adult...

*n should ne b ... bossy, British... silly phone... ;)

MySoreBack Wed 12-Mar-14 16:01:43

I agree. I really do think 'bossy' is generally used in a gender-specific. For me, it's not as bad as 'feisty', already mentioned above. My pet hate. A better example than bossy perhaps because men and boys really are never called feisty.

stooshe Wed 12-Mar-14 16:27:42

"feisty" , pronounced "facety" in the Caribbean is NOT gender specific in that community. I won't be putting down that word for anybody. It just means "rude' to us.

AnnieLobeseder Wed 12-Mar-14 17:01:06

I think "bossy" is a great word to start with because it is targeted at girls, while the other words mentioned in the OP are more for adult women. The earlier we start with changing our language towards children, eliminating <any> words that either place expectations on them or chastise them for behaviour based only on their gender, the earlier children will be able to grow up into the adult they were intended to be.

I've been thinking a lot about language used with children. There's so much that needs changing.

Bossy - stifles leadership
Beautiful - elevates look above other qualities
Ladylike - certain behaviours acceptable/not acceptable based on gender
Feminine - combination of beautiful and ladylike
"He's only doing that because he likes you" - teaches that harassment/assault is an acceptable way to show affection

Don't be so sensitive - why shouldn't men be sensitive?
Boys don't cry - teaches men to stifle emotion instead of allowing healthy release
Don't be such a girl - women are inferior, whatever you do, don't act like one
Boys will be boys - overly boisterous/aggressive behavior is acceptable for one gender only

So while this campaign focuses on just "bossy", I hope it will get people thinking about other language they use with their children too.

AnnieLobeseder Wed 12-Mar-14 17:13:10

Basically, we need to re-think any word/phrase which tells children "because you are a boy/girl, you should/shouldn't do xyz". So damaging to everyone.

Really struggling with the argument bossy is gendered AND with the argument bossy boys are thought of as leaders - bossy is a minor official, a jobsworth with no people skills - my son has a male on-off friend who he complains is too bossy... leaders amoung children are not perceived as bossy by their peers ime - you don't get people to do things the way you think will work best by being bossy, but by leading by example or by showing or explaining why your idea will work. The bossy child is the one who demands everyone do as they say and has a big sulk or shouts or storms off if not - and that applies to both genders.

aliciagardner Wed 12-Mar-14 18:14:32

Agree again mr tumbles!

Sausageeggbacon Wed 12-Mar-14 18:34:27

Cannot see Bossy as gendered, I have used it with all 3 kids and DH all with the same meaning and implication. Going to ignore the campaign.

TheCrackFox Wed 12-Mar-14 18:48:44

I don't think it is a gendered phrase either. DS1 can sometimes be unbearably bossy (with family and friends), if it was left unchecked he wouldn't actually have any friends. It is important to remember that school isn't work and different rules apply.

Wineoclocksomewhere Wed 12-Mar-14 19:58:51

Arguments above re whether or not bossy is used in a gendered way are kind of outside the point, I think.

It's a good thing for this debate to exist at all if it raises awareness that we treat girls and boys shockingly differently.

If we don't address it we will never fully redress the balance. I am sick to death of people telling my 5yo dd that she is pretty. But I am more upset that her peers call her a boy cos she wears trousers to school!! Those kids are getting that from adults.

SirChenjin Wed 12-Mar-14 21:55:43

Another second agreement with MrTumbles. I think it's a pointless campaign tbh, rooted in a desire to make bossy gender-specific to suit the cause, rather than an actuality.

HuwEdwards Thu 13-Mar-14 00:03:44


vesuvia Thu 13-Mar-14 00:11:42

This thread prompted me to do a web search of the terms "bossy woman", "bossy women", "bossy man" and "bossy men".

The search results show that "bossy" was used to describe women 6 times more often than it was used to describe men.

A search for "bossy female" returned over 50 times more search results than "bossy male", although those results include situations in which human traits have been anthropomorphised onto other species.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now