Sometimes, a little word can make a huge impact.
“I think it can be very difficult for women to be in leadership positions,” says Bloomfield Hills High School (BHHS) Associate Principal Margaret Schultz about how the word ‘bossy’ contributes to the negative labeling of female leaders. “Sometimes I feel like I am out of place when going to associate principal conferences since it is mainly a male dominated occupation.”
Facebook Chief-Operating-Officer Sheryl Sandberg shares Schultz’s feelings and has created the Ban Bossy movement that exists to not only eliminate the word “bossy” but to also empower young women to pursue leadership roles, despite the disapproval they may receive. Partners include the Girl Scouts, Teach for America, and the Girls Leadership Institute (GLI).
“There’s this issue of gender language, and it is incredibly important,” elaborates GLI educator Rachael Starr Bruck. “The word ‘bossy’ is primarily related to girls. You can see at a very young age. Boys are taught to be confident and assertive while girls are taught to be nurturing and kind and quiet. If they try to take charge, young girls labeled as bossy and aggressive and it discourages them.”
“I was always told I was bossy as a child and my dad would say, ‘You always have to have things your way,’” says Schultz. “That’s not necessarily the case. I was just trying to be a leader, and I had ideas.”
BHHS Student Leadership Representative Jessica Kahn notices a similar pattern in her life: “Whenever I act as a leader in Student Leadership, someone may take offense to it or think that I am being rude. But when a boy leads, they think ‘Wow, he is doing so much work. He’s so mature.’”
Bruck, who also serves as GLI’s advice columnist “Dear Ms. Starr,” says that such put-downs affect the self-esteem of girls:
“The common thing I see is that they say that they are not feeling confident and empowered to stand up for themselves. People tell girls that they are being too dramatic,” she says. “I think that a lot of it is that girls are afraid to be big and take up space. It is seen to be aggressive. A young girl would feel badly using her voice so she is more likely to be silent. She would hide her true feeling and tries to feel smaller in order to be liked, in order to be popular, in order to be the good girl. People tell girls that they are being too dramatic.”
Bruck also explains how the discrimination that assertive girls face is a socially rooted issue that starts off as early as elementary school. “It starts so young. In first grade, you hear that you are being too sensitive. It can be a small putdown of her feelings. She gets a little older and asserts leadership and the disapproval grows. By middle school, she doesn’t care about leadership anymore and by high school, she’d rather be liked than independent. We tell girls in middle school and high school, ‘Yes, you can be anything you want. You can be that CEO,’ but they are put down so early on it suppresses so many potential leaders.”
“I was fortunate enough to be raised as a confident woman, but there is a concern that same confidence doesn’t apply to every girl,” adds Schultz. “Calling them bossy could shut them down on something that they could be good at. I worry about that.”
“There is a social cultural level that when boys speak up, there’s more social acceptance of that,” says Bruck.
BHHS Student Leadership Representative Karlyn Sykes agrees. “I am really into fashion and the one big woman in the fashion staple is Anna Wintour. She is recognized as being kind of an ice queen. I don’t think that’s fair. There are men that are in control of five or six companies and he is seen getting the job done. When you see a women getting the job done, she needs to be more open and nice.”
Bruck believes this movement works against such negative labeling. She advises girls and teachers to look at the Ban Bossy website for a list of tips to encourage girl leadership.
“Teachers may not know little things in the classroom have a huge impact. Like allowing girls to be interrupted, praising boys more. Just little things can hurt,” she explains. “Implicit strategies can be huge. There are also a lot of celebrities and a lot of powerful women behind this project. Big people who girls look up to like politicians Condoleezza Rice or actress Jennifer Garner.”
“I saw Beyoncé in their promotional video,” jokes Sykes. “And everyone loves Beyoncé.”
The website also encourages social media to play a huge part in the campaign. #BanBossy currently trends on Twitter.
“It seems to be pretty big and it is getting a lot of media and discussion,” comments Bruck. “Whether people love it or are against it, it is stirring up a lot of important conversations.” Schultz adds, “The best start is talking about it. Things don’t start changing until you start talking about it.”
The campaign also gets positive reactions from local female leaders in Michigan such as Executive Director at the Michigan Council of Women in Technology Janette Phillips. “I agree with the points made and it is definitely something I see,” says Phillips. “Maybe sometimes women have to be a little more assertive but we are just looking out for each other. Maybe I do get bossy. However, if someone were to call me that I would say, ‘I don’t care.’ We are doing it for the end game and to reach our goals.”
There is a lot of passionate effort put into the campaign for a simple goal: helping girls to feel empowered. “I hope to see girls stand on their own two feet, not yelling or whispering. We can teach girls that if someone comes up to them and calls them bossy, they can say, ‘Please don’t say that’ or ‘I’m not bossy. This is how I feel. This is what’s important to me,” concludes Bruck.
To learn more about Ban Bossy, go to: banbossy.com