Since her childhood, Rachel Thomas has felt like she was walking a tightrope.
“If you assert yourself, you’re less well-liked,” Thomas, now the president of LeanIn.org, says. “If you don’t assert yourself enough, you’re not seen as competent.”
That tension is at the heart of the “Ban Bossy” campaign that was launched this month by Thomas, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, and the team at LeanIn.org. Done in partnership with the Girl Scouts, the campaign aims to raise awareness around how gendered language holds girls and women back from pursuing leadership roles.
Interestingly, many people have come out against the campaign. The New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune, and Slate all agree that banning the word “bossy” doesn’t get to the root of the problem. But a look into the linguistics behind the word shows that the campaign could do a great deal of good.
Like a certain other b-word, “bossy” reveals an asymmetry between the way we treat men and women.
“When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader,'” banbossy.com reads. “Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy.'”
Thomas says that women are expected to be more nurturing, collaborative, and kind, while men are expected to be assertive, commanding, and direct. So women are often penalized for asserting themselves, whether it’s girls getting called “pushy,” “know-it-all,” and “smartypants” or professional women deemed as “aggressive,” “ambitious,” and “difficult.”
“As a girl I was called ‘bossy,’ ‘loud,’ ‘know-it-all,'” Thomas says. “And as adults, women internalize it — it’s very painful to assert yourself when the message is that it’s not right to do.”
Calling someone “bossy” is “just a way of expressing the negative reaction that women get if they talk in ways that are expected from someone in authority,” she asks.
To avoid sounding bossy, women learn to soften their speech with politeness. Rather than saying “do this,” they might say “let’s do this” or “what you could do” or rephrase their statements as questions. For example, instead of saying, “Have this on my desk tomorrow,” a woman might say, “Could you please have it to me tomorrow?”
The same double standard also occurs in the way we talk about female managers. She’s high-ranking, but she has a soft touch. She comes on strong, but she’s really good. For Tannen, it’s part of a false dichotomy.
“Does she talk as you expect a woman to talk, or does she talk in the way you’d expect a person of authority to talk?” she says.
Tannen says the feminine/authoritative dichotomy starts in childhood and gets carried into adulthood. Kids play with kids of the same sex, with girls playing in smaller groups than boys. Hierarchy among girlfriends is subtle: Girls don’t like a girl who tells other girls what to do, and if she does, she gets labeled as bossy.
In turn, girls learn not to “boss people around,” for fear of being ousted from the social group.
As Thomas’s experiences show, that playground behavior carries over to the workplace.
“When they speak in a very direct style or promote themselves, there’s often social pushback for women, and I’ve felt that myself,” Thomas says. If a woman speaks directly, she says, she’s perceived as less likeable. And to avoid that social pushback, women “become self-deprecating. We over-rotate the other way, and that hurts us is in our careers, since part of succeeding is other people taking notice.”
Is banning “bossy” enough to reverse these biases? For Tannen, the key is to become more aware, and this campaign could help with that. If we get a better read on how our language reflects gender assumptions, then we can make progress.
How to do it? “Before calling a woman ‘bossy,’ you think, ‘hold on a minute, would I say that if she were a man in the same position?'” she says. “Because the vast majority of people talking in this way don’t want to hold women back, but it can have an effect.”
Women could also take the Beyoncé approach, and own it. “I’m not bossy,” she says in the campaign video. “I’m the boss.”