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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

LapsedPacifist Thu 13-Mar-14 01:23:13

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"

^^ Thanks Vesuvia - I actually thought for a while I'd died and woken up in a parallel universe hmm. When does anyone ever see the term 'bossy' appled to a boy/man? Of course it's a 'gender specific' term when x50 it's only seen to be applied to females!

This sort of pedantry is spectacularly (or wilfully) missing the point. Forget what could or should be the correct grammatical usage of the word - look at how it's actually used in the real world!

ThePowerOfNo Thu 13-Mar-14 02:15:39

Bossy is gender specific. This campaign has really got me thinking about language.

noddyholder Thu 13-Mar-14 09:18:52

I am surprised Beyonce is fronting this campaign.

diamondlizard Thu 13-Mar-14 09:30:12

What mr tumbles and Annie said

FrugalFashionista Thu 13-Mar-14 09:32:16

My children go to a school where a few mothers seem to worry about their daughters being too 'bossy'. In practice, this means, they speak up, take charge in group play, intervene if someone is being bullied, and play with the boys. I've never heard anyone complaining about their sons being too bossy.

I'm female and in a mid-level leadership position. I was probably a bossy child, but those traits were not suppressed when I was younger and I feel they got me where I am now. I boss people around all the time and that's also rewarded financially wink

If you study psychology, you will read about dominance behaviors. They are built in, and we have various ways of suppressing or encouraging them. I have two daughters and I really feel we should encourage 'bossy' behaviors in girls and 'caring' behaviors in boys just to rebalance things a little grin

diamondlizard Thu 13-Mar-14 09:32:50

Bossy is used on boys and girls in the uk

Rather see a change in not calling girls pretty and caring so much

And not telling boys come on don't cry be a big boy, and stop acting like a girl etc

Far more damaging than telling a bossy boots stop being so bossy

But really this is social conditioner I can't see how it's ever going to REALLY. Change

Yeah yeah a few people might and it might make a difference to a tiny number
But IMO there will always be this type of crap going on

diamondlizard Thu 13-Mar-14 09:35:12

And perhaps if this type of social conditoning is going on and will always realistically go on

Perhaps the wisest thing is to use it to our advantage somehow......

Dotty342kids Thu 13-Mar-14 09:42:05

I think one of the best things we can do is just to be mindful of the ways and contexts in which we praise or admonish our children, thinking about what the subtext is of the words we use.
For example, when I tell my DD she is beautiful am I rewarding her choice of outfits, the way she just behaved towards another child or her at her most scruffy / dirty and how does she hear and interpret what I say?
Do I ever praise my son for his caring nature or kindness towards someone or do I praise him for what he does instead?
I think all debates like this are thought provoking and encourage us to think about how we communicate, and surely that's only a good thing? Many small changes carried out by individuals, and in families, can be much more effective than a ban on a word. But the debate that proposed ban starts, is crucial!

sleeplessbunny Thu 13-Mar-14 10:12:37

Shocked at the number of people who don't believe bossy is used in a gender-specific way. That was certainly not my experience growing up, and it has undoubtedly had an effect on my adult behaviour. I'm glad to see the issue being raised.

Lancashiregirl Thu 13-Mar-14 11:52:47

"Hectoring" - usually referring to a woman who has opinions, particularly used by UKIP representatives.

wol1968 Thu 13-Mar-14 12:07:29

What about 'control freak'? A woman is labelled a 'control freak' when she is neat, meticulous, organised and methodical in her own life. A man is only labelled a 'control freak' when he resorts to emotional or physical violence to force others (usually women) to do everything his way.

Likeaninjanow Thu 13-Mar-14 12:30:18

I don't see bossy as gender specific. In fact my 6 year old little boy came home in tears yesterday because he said his IT partner at school is too bossy (boy).

Just really don't see it as a gender issue.

MiscellaneousAssortment Thu 13-Mar-14 13:00:33

I do think it is a gendered term, not limited only to girls, but used much more for girls.

I suspect alot of mumsnetters dont use such gendered language and therefore have a more gender neutral perception of the term - but that doesn't mean others do the same!

I suspect that girls tend to be called bossy and told to stop it, whereas boys are told off for being too rude and learn how to modulate their behaviour and do it better. That's the problem - girls stop, and boys develop their leadership skills.

SirChenjin Thu 13-Mar-14 15:57:36

I disagree. Boys who are rude (or bossy) don't go onto develop their leadership skills and more than bossy (or rude) girls do.

I think we're confusing bossy with being the boss. The best bosses to work for are absolutely not bossy; they are good leaders who encourage, empower and support, ie the very opposite of bossy.

GreenShadow Thu 13-Mar-14 16:51:25

I must say I find this all a bit strange.

My first reaction on seeing the title was to assume that women considered men bossy, i.e. based on men more traditionally being 'the boss' at work.
I was rather surprised to find it meant the opposite.

I genuinely can't say that I would ever consider 'bossy' to be a 'female' thing and, having thought about it for a bit since first seeing the blog, still can't relate to it. Sorry to those that disagree, but we obviously move in very different circles.

Shrinkgrowskids Thu 13-Mar-14 21:01:11

I agree with everything people have written about the gender stereotyping in language. I've felt for a while that this is a really good way to start tackling gender equality that everyone can easily participate in. But it's so subtle and pervasive that most of us don't even notice and commit the crimes constantly without even realising! One thing I hate, and at times have been guilty of is using the word "mother" when I mean "parent". E.g., poor child, her mum's late picking her up; or children need their mother' both, this should be parent, but sometimes, mother just comes out! I get very angry when child psychologists, usually men (oliver James, Steven biddulph) say that children need their mothers to stay at home with them in the first few years of life, as far as I'm concerned, beyond breast feeding, this should be parent, not mother! Even in science, experiments are conducted using mothers and toddlers because they are more likely to turn up to be researched, but then the findings are extrapolated to mean that mothers are required for these roles, or are damaging to children if they behave in a certain way, when in fact, it is just that no one has rigorously researched the father-child relationship in the same way. Read more on gender stereotyping from a child psychiatrists perspective at:

Shrinkgrowskids Thu 13-Mar-14 21:06:33

I should add this is in addition to disagreeing that a stay at home parent is necessary.

olathelawyer05 Thu 13-Mar-14 23:52:47

If someone uses bossy when someone is simply being assertive, then that is the fault/perception of the user, and not the word.

Bossy is clearly not the same thing as assertive - it denotes a rudeness beyond mere assertiveness and rudeness should always be called out. First some idiot wanted to ban 'fat' because it could causes hurty feelings, and now this.

Also, I don't agree that it's gendered, but even if it were, so what? Is it any more gendered than 'jerk' or 'arsehole'? - words that I personally have never heard used to describe women, but typically aimed at, as it happens 'bossy' (i.e. rude/obnoxious) behaviour in boys/men..... or perhaps those boys/men were just being 'assertive' and we should ban those words also.

Technotropic Sat 15-Mar-14 13:53:24


Definitely not gendered as the word just means a fondness of giving people orders and being domineering.

Bossy Bear is a children's book where the bear is male. Type the words 'bossy man' into google and you'll get many results. All you get if you type 'bossy women' is links to this campaign so is difficult to compare in a balanced way.

vesuvia Sat 15-Mar-14 17:17:41

Technotropic wrote - " All you get if you type 'bossy women' is links to this campaign so is difficult to compare in a balanced way."

There are many web links dealing with the concept of bossy women that pre-date the "Ban Bossy" campaign, so it isn't "all you get". Bossy women is not a concept invented by the recently launched campaign.

Two such "gems" include Marie Claire's article "Bossy women have less sex" published more than 2 years ago, and the Guardian article "Female boss or bossy female?", published 7 years ago. (I've mentioned how old they are only to show that women have been long been linked negatively with bossiness. I could also have included numerous recent links).

Although bossy is a word without different male and female forms like manager/manageress and can be applied to anyone, it is often used in a gendered, biased way. I think it is usually used more unfavourably about girls and women.

I think that a girl or woman will not have to be as bossy as a boy or man for her to be described as bossy. For me, that double standard, which is biased against girls and women, is one of the most important points that the "Ban Bossy" campaign could help to highlight.

Other words e.g "nag" are also not obviously-gendered because they can be applied to anyone, but I think most people would accept that they have seen or heard examples of when unwelcome advice from a man is usually described as "unwelcome advice" but the same from a woman is often described as "nagging". (Yes, I know there will have been a man somewhere sometime since the dawn of civilization who has been described as a nag, but that doesn't negate the overwhelmingly anti-woman gendered implications of that word).

Technotropic Sat 15-Mar-14 20:35:39

No it's ok, I've only just crawled out from under a rock so was never aware that bossy was an old term hmm

I don't buy into it tbh but using your two male/female forms then I've yet to hear the derogatory term, 'micro manageress'. Everyone hates a micro manager and this is a very male term.

I also don't buy into the claim that a woman doesn't need to be as bossy to be deemed bossy, compared to a male. A bitch is a bitch and a wanker is a wanker. It really does depend on an individual's tolerance level and who you're dealing with.

I think there have been a fair few people here that think it's a non issue whilst some think it is. I think that says a lot.

SirChenjin Sat 15-Mar-14 21:17:14

I think that a girl or woman will not have to be as bossy as a boy or man for her to be described as bossy

Completely disagree. I don't see any evidence of that - people who throw their weight around are highly irritating, be they male or female. Equating that behaviour with being 'the boss' does this 'campaign' no favours whatsoever - and those who have to remind us that they are the boss are usually not well respected as leaders.

Laughingatyou Sun 16-Mar-14 09:57:24

“Don't you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by eactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten. . . . The process will still be continuing long after you and I are dead. Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller. Even now, of course, there's no reason or excuse for commiting thought-crime. It's merely a question of self-discipline, reality-control. But in the end there won't be any need even for that. . . . Has it ever occcured to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?”

1984 Was a warning, Not an instruction manual.

Londonsw8 Sat 29-Mar-14 00:27:34

Aren't all leaders bossy

spinnergeologist Sat 29-Mar-14 01:06:20

I have worked with kids to try and help get more women into male dominated professions and vice versa. I spend a lot of time being told that I cannot have a high end profession because I'm female by 14 year old girls and boys. One of my friends is doing a similar thing and is told he cannot do his job because its a 'girls' thing.

It is a big underlying problem that girls and boys are culturally programmed from a early age that certain traits are not becoming of their gender. Most people do not even recognise the subtle ways this happens because it is so normal in society; as someone mentioned above in kids TV no one likes the bossy clever girl (signal not to be competitive), emotive boys are always weak to name a few. No one likes to think they re-enforce this kind of sexism especially in the home, but it is very hard not to do because it is so normal. This campaign although not perfect at least starts to address these issues and helps people to think about how they might unconsciously treat both sexes.

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