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Column: Banning the word 'bossy' won't help women

Getting rid of the word won’t get rid of the problem of too few women in leadership – instead, let’s just get used to being “bossed” by a woman, writes Lorraine Courtney.

Lorraine Courtney Freelance journalist

THERE’S A NEW campaign calling for an end to the use of the word “bossy” on the grounds that it stops little girls from being ambitious. The Ban Bossy campaign is the brainchild of Lean In, the non-profit organisation set up by Sheryl Sandberg – Facebook’s chief operating officer. “Words like ‘bossy’ send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up,” reads the introduction on its website. “By the age of 12, girls are less interested in leading than boys, a trend that continues into adulthood.”

As with most campaigns these days, it comes with the backing of a troop of celebrities. In the one-minute video, Diane von Furstenberg, Jennifer Garner and Condoleezza Rice all wax lyrical about the pejorative use of the word “bossy, and claim how banning the word would encourage young girls to step into leadership roles. Victoria Beckham adds: “It is thought-provoking that a man in charge can be described as commanding, however a woman in the same position may be called bossy.”

“By middle school,” declares an authoritative-sounding voiceover, “girls are less interested in leadership than boys, and that’s because they worry about being called bossy.” I’m not sure if there are studies to back that one up? Beyoncé finishes off the film with the catchy, “I’m not bossy; I’m the boss.” So basically we have lots of bossy women, bossing us around, telling us we’re not allowed to call bossy women bossy.

Are women falling behind in leadership? Yes.

No doubt we women are falling behind in leadership. The CSO’s Women and Men in Ireland study in 2010 found that Irish women work fewer hours, earn less and are under-represented in the Oireachtais as well as in local and regional authorities. In 2011, only 15.1 per cent of TDs were women, while they accounted for just over a third of members of State Boards, less than a fifth of members of local authorities and just over a third of the membership of Vocational Education Committees.

Women are not well-represented at senior level positions: only 36 per cent of medical and dental consultants are women, 53 per cent of primary school managers, and 41 per cent of second-level school managers. The report also shows that women’s income in 2009 was around 73 per cent of men’s income. After adjusting for the longer hours worked by men, women’s hourly earnings were shockingly only around 94 per cent of men’s.

Still, banning a fairly benign word is hardly a problem big enough to warrant such a campaign of combined star power. Besides, the whole thing smells too much of feminist thought police, like the early days of radical feminism that always sought to ban and restrict stuff rather than trying to create compelling alternatives. Banning things and enforcing speech codes that prohibit normal language is only going to be damaging to female empowerment. You are never going to open up a girl’s options by restricting the way we can talk about them. It’s counterintuitive.

Getting rid of the word won’t get rid of the problem

Most reactions have been fairly negative. Twitter ranged from the tepid to the hostile. Jessica Roy at Time Magazine wrote: “I am bossy. And I don’t give a *$&% if you call me that,” Slate’s Katy Waldman said: “I don’t intend to stop using it, even if the feminist super-team tells me to.”

You see, getting rid of the word won’t get rid of the actual problem. Instead, let’s get used to being “bossed” by a woman. The discomfort will fade and the word will be flipped to a positive thing. Being called bossy doesn’t bother me. Maybe because I’m a well-adjusted, grown up but “bossy” doesn’t bother me in the way that other hate words do. This b-word isn’t what’s stopping us reaching our potentials.

Looking to ban a word is about as bossy as you can get. Besides, we’re very rarely bossy anyway, we’ve mastered the art of passive aggressive bitchiness. It’s just far more socially tolerable. There’s something else these very powerful ambitious women could do: reclaim the word. Embrace it. Stand together and say, “We’re bossy — so what?” Because it’s true, and it’s not always a bad thing, and actually, it is already happening around us every single day.

Lorraine Courtney is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @lorrainecath.

Column: If you’d like to work in an industry, don’t be discouraged by negative perceptions

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About the author:

Lorraine Courtney  / Freelance journalist

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