The ‘Ban Bossy’ Campaign, labels, and why we need to think again

As a mother of a daughter, i’ve been interested this week in the new campaign to ban the word ‘bossy’ in relation to girls. Led by Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice and Anna Maria Chávez, and backed by Beyonce and VB, it aims to shun this term and highlight the damage that such labels can have on girls/women in our society. Sandberg is spot on 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’.”

Now, I certainly believe what she said to be true, but I wasn’t sure if there was a smidge of feminist hysteria here. Were they fighting about the wrong word? After all I call up BOTH Freddie, and Sasha, for being ‘bossy’, and have been known to use the word, especially if either one of them walks in clutching a book and shrieking “READ IT!” pre 7am. “Don’t be so bossy, please” is a well-growled phrase at that time in the morning. So certainly at this tender age, it is a term that can, and I believe, is, used correctly with both sexes.

But a quick glance at Google suggests that the term ‘bossy woman’ comes up with a ton more search results than ‘bossy man’, suggesting it IS a gender specific problem as time goes on.

So at what age does this change? When do we stop calling boys ‘bossy’? Boys certainly can, and do, carry on with ‘bossy’ traits in an, at times, unappealing way. So what do we call them instead? Assertive? Testosterone-fuelled? As Sandberg suggests, A Leader? There is obviously a crucial window, even a small one, whereby the transition from ‘bossy’ to positive character traits opens for boys, and subtlety closes for the female of the species.

But  it’s not just the word ‘bossy’ that holds back women- the following all have negative connotations too. Can you ever think of a time when you were called, or heard another woman called  ‘controlling’, ‘hysterical’, ’emotional’, ‘bubbly’? The first three words all imply that an assertive woman who has feelings is a nutjob not to be taken seriously, and to therefore be dismissive of her voice. Or that an outgoing, friendly, happy, ‘bubbly’ woman, is a bit dim with it. A man with the latter characteristics would be deemed a top bloke.

Young boys don’t escape from a bit of sexism either. ‘Don’t be sensitive’ and ‘Boys don’t cry’ (really?!) are both unhealthy phrases frequently banded about, and suggest that boys shouldn’t have/show emotions. Even worse is the horrible “don’t be a girl”, ingraining in boys of a young age that there is nothing worse than being a woman. Effectively holding back woman and the way they’re perceived in what is supposed to be, in global terms,  a ‘forward-thinking’ society.  I NEVER want Freddie to think that to be like his sister is a negative thing. Equally I want him to be able to shout how he feels emotionally, should he wish, from the rooftops.

So while this (worthwhile) campaign focuses on just “bossy”, I hope it will get people thinking about other language they use with their children too. As a parent of mixed-sex siblings, who are very close in age, it will be an interesting exercise to watch my language use when interacting with them. I am mindful of the fact that how they are treated today, in terms of expectations of their sex, will affect them profoundly as the adults of tomorrow.




  1. March 14, 2014 / 9:17 am

    I think it’s all gone a bit too far. I certainly agree that phrases like ‘don’t be a girl’ and ‘boys don’t cry’ are dangerous in their negative connotations towards women and emotions.

    But I have been called bossy all my life. And guess what? I bloody well am. I don’t have a problem with the word; I’m bossy because I know what I want, and how I want it done. That’s not a bad thing as far as I’m concerned.

    (And Beyoncé’s got a cheek. ‘Who run the world? Girls’ that would make us the BOSS then wouldn’t it Bey?)

    • March 14, 2014 / 1:23 pm

      I don’t think the word ‘bossy’ is a problem if you happen to be a confident type in the first place, but I do worry that it could inhibit some girls/women from speaking up if they are no so outgoing, for fear of being deemed ‘bossy’ and all the negative connotation that come with it. I mus admit there have been times in the past when I perhaps haven’t kept speaking up in a work meeting, or ‘led’ when I perhaps should have/could have done, because I din’t want to thought of as being bossy. Food for thought, thank you for commenting!

  2. Katie
    March 14, 2014 / 11:06 am

    I agree that to focus on just one word is a little short sighted and also doesn’t reflect the actual point that there are phrases used in relation to women that are derogatory and generally accepted because “it’s always been like that” I absolutely want my daughters to grow up being strong independent women and not pigeon holed because they demonstrate a particular trait I.e bossyness, which at least for one of mine is a certainty! I just want them to grow up feeling valued by society and treated the same as everyone else, male female, sexual orientation, race, bossyness etc etc!!

    • March 14, 2014 / 1:24 pm

      Yes, I totally agree with wanting children to be valued equally, whatever their sex. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Emma
    March 14, 2014 / 11:45 am

    I am about to totally flip this, now i do believe there is a certain amount of feminism needed in the world, but lets face it for centuries woman and men have had their roles and have ticked along quite nicely (or so it would seem). I can drive a car adequately and can just about put a shelf up but know better how to cook, run a house and care for my children. I am a sterotypical woman who moans at my other half to do more around the house, but when he does I moan once again that he hasnt done it right!! Is that being bossy or just a womanly trait? Is it not therefore that woman are bossy by nature. My partner doesnt expect me to do his work and i wouldnt want to, nor does he expect me to pay all the bills, of which i am grateful. So why do I still feel the need to ‘boss’ him around at home?. I have 4 children (3 boys and 1 girl). Completely unprovoked I have noticed that my daughter is extremely ‘bossy,’ she tells the boys what to do and makes them engage in games purely for her own amusement and they oblige (most of the time). However, when there is something she is afraid of, she will look to her brothers for protection. I believe that naturally we women are the ‘bossier’ sex, we seek perfectionism, comfort and control in the areas of life we are most able at (whether that be home or work). I dont think that by calling our daughters ‘bossy’ we are going to create someone who wasnt going to naturally become just that. My daughter is ‘bossy’ and she gets results, i think the problem is within the word, maybe she should be called assertive or a motivator or how about the ‘brat controller!!’ (ok maybe not that last one!) Im still going to call all my children ‘bossy’ when the need arises, its a word they understand the meaning of afterall and it should be thought of as a broadly used word to describe all the more positive meanings it could have!

    Society has catagorised the sexes and generally speaking if we were honest with ourselves its true! Embrace dont disgrace!

    Women, hysterical? emotional? who the hell said that!!!?


    • March 14, 2014 / 1:29 pm

      Hmmm interesting post! I agree with you that some traits are inherently female, and some are male, and I do think that someone who is naturally more assertive would not be hindered by the word. I do believe though that less outgoing girls/women are potentially stifled at school/workplace by ‘bossy’, as it’s quite undermining to a strong woman’s authority. My boss was never called ‘bossy’, but I knew a few female directors who were always referred to as this by junior staff, and it was never in a positive light. Thank you for commenting!

  4. Johanna
    March 14, 2014 / 12:02 pm

    I guess the real problem is that we expect different things from boys and girls and those patterns are really hard to break out of.
    Regardless of what word we are discussing, we need to stop identifying certain characteristics and traits with a specific sex and look to the specifics of the individual instead.

    I must also agree with Emma, that the word ‘bossy’ isn’t a problem for me, as I also regard myself as being bossy and for me, that is a good thing!

    • Johanna
      March 14, 2014 / 12:08 pm

      To clarify, the Emma I was referring to is, ’emmasfoodcruise’.

    • March 14, 2014 / 1:33 pm

      Yes, I think it’s gender labelling and stereotyping that is more damaging than just a word. I guess one of the reasons the campaign is focusing on predominantly that one word is that it’s punchy ‘Ban Bossy’, and then the other aspects of gender labelling can be explored.

  5. Paul Hutchinson
    March 14, 2014 / 6:05 pm

    Growing up in quite a matriarchal home, I guess I’ve been lucky to see exactly how strong women can be, and also the right way of treating people.

    If my mum called one of us bossy, we were all boss. When given a reason not to cry, we were usually told “don;t be a baby”. There were no gender specific rules. If my sisters wanted to play with my Lego, I had to let them. If I wanted to join in with their games then, likewise, they had an obligation to let me.

    While we argued a lot (quite violently at times) my sisters and I were simply a gang. A gang that remains strong today, even if we still argue (although not as violently anymore).

    Despite having slightly more influence from a female parent, I am still a man. However I too am frustrated by sexist generalizations. For example, aside from cheering on England during international competitions, I hate football. It’s boring. Yet people are often surprised when I tell them this. My younger sister though loves it. I also never have ‘man-flu’. If I have a cold, I get on with it. As most men I know do. If I have the Flu however, like anyone of any gender, I’m knocked for six. I hate it when people, usually women, make jokes about ‘man-flu’ just because I’m drinking Lemsip at my desk. I made it into work but there’s an automatic assumption that I feel I’m suffering more then they do. When I show my frustration I get the same response women hate so much: “It was only a joke!”

    I think it’s certainly worth highlighting that there are stereotypes that need to be challenged and if this campaign highlights them, then that can only be a good thing. Yes there is a catchy marketing element to ‘Ban Bossy’ but I wonder if perhaps the message should be less about what words should be banned, and more about how those words are being misused.

    After all, it’s not words that need changing, it’s attitudes.

  6. March 14, 2014 / 7:38 pm

    Great insight, Paul! I sometimes forget that men are sometimes objects of reverse sexism and you’re so right about the ‘man flu’ comment. I do wonder if mixed sexed siblings are less subject to the same stereotyping as single sexed siblings? I say this as a generalisation, not the rule, but they tend to have more of a mix of toys to play with and are therefore given more opportunities to explore other avenues not tied to a specific view of their gender? For example, Freddie has lots of little girl friends, but i’ve noticed that not many, if any, have a tool kit, or a work bench, or many cars. I know from having Sasha that she loves playing with the tool kits, and pretending to fix cars with Freddie. Had she been born first, or didn’t have a brother, would we have been so quick to buy these sorts of toys? I’d like to think so, but in all honesty I don’t know. This campaign has made me analyse my own views, and if it does the same for other people, that can only be a good thing.

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