Don't Call Me Bossy! (Call Me Boss-tastic!)

Media Guy Has a Few Thoughts About Lean In's 'Ban Bossy' Campaign

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Credit: Kelsey Dake for Ad Age

I have a penis.

I thought I'd start off with that full disclosure so that, should you so decide, you can disregard everything I'm about to say about the "Ban Bossy" campaign. Because, you know, it's a female-empowerment movement and I am technically a default member of the patriarchal/oppressor class (though somehow not really a full-fledged member, which frankly bothers me sometimes, even though I can sort of understand why nobody really wants me running things -- but I digress). Some manly thoughts:

The 'Ban Bossy campaign kinda sounds good, in theory-ish.
Ban Bossy -- see and #BanBossy on Twitter -- is brought to you by Lean In, in partnership with the Girl Scouts. Lean In is, of course, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg's tax-exempt private foundation inspired by her book "Lean In: Women, Work & the Will to Lead."

Why ban "bossy" (i.e., try to discourage the use of the word to describe girls)? Because, per the campaign's mission statement, "When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a 'leader.' Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded 'bossy.' Words like bossy send a message: Don't raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys -- a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead."

Encourage girls to lead. Who can argue with that, right?

Another full disclosure: I never called my sisters 'bossy' when I was a kid.
I'm the baby in the Dumenco clan. I have two older sisters, who, precisely because I never called them "bossy," went on to greatness. (One is a medical doctor, the other is a science Ph.D. Obviously, as a blowhard columnist, I'm the black sheep of the family.)

Actually, the truth is, I never called them bossy because I didn't think to call them bossy -- even though, in retrospect, they could be pretty bossy! (To each other, that is. I was the mostly doted-on little brother and the peacemaker between my warring sisters. Always trying to out-bossy each other, those two.)

I'm sorry, but bossy is not necessarily a 'gendered word.'
I had a discussion last week with some of my colleagues about the word bossy. At one point Ad Age's Nat Ives chimed in and said that he could see Lean In's point because "'bossy' is a gendered term."

Which inspired me to search a decade's worth of my personal and professional correspondence -- my Gmail outbox, which contains 62,296 messages that I've sent since 2004 -- and found that not only did I never refer to a woman as bossy (I've had one truly obnoxiously bossy boss over the years and he was a guy), but I've repeatedly referred to myself as bossy. For example, on April 10, 2013 (semi-jokingly, to a colleague): "I'm a bossy, opinionated (and borderline angry) know-it-all…"

Bossy actually means something.
Bossy is, let's be honest, kind of a great word. It has meaning. It's brisk descriptive shorthand for certain types of managers, coworkers, friends and family members (including children!) we all know. So what, dear Lean In, am I supposed to say about people -- male or female -- who behave thusly? "OMG, Bob's managerial inclinations are so non-participatory and traditionally hierarchical!"

There's got to be a better way to 'encourage girls to lead' ...
… than banning a great, meaningful adjective that is actually super-accurate in some cases.

Turns out a lot of non-penis-having people agree with me.
See "'Banning bossy isn't the answer': What real parents say about Sandberg's plan" by The Guardian's Katie Rogers and Ruth Spencer, who quoted moms, including Natascha Hainsworth, of Canada, who runs a theater company: "I have flat-out looked at my daughter and said, 'Don't be bossy.' I'm not trying to take away her opinions or stifle her in any way, but like every other person on the planet (no matter their sex), she needs to learn to be polite."

And Maria Seidman, CEO and co-founder of Yapp: "Tying the word to gender does not resonate with me one bit. I call my son out as being bossy all the time."

The way to start getting kids to use a word they weren't necessarily using already is to tell them not to use it.
Like, flashing back to my student years at a Catholic elementary school in Wisconsin, I distinctly remember my class being told not to use a certain word that I can't say right now, because it's a very bad word -- and then suddenly everyone was saying it (as soon as the teacher was out of earshot) all the time. (It's a word that's sort of similar to that hamburger chain Fuddrucker's name -- and come to think of it, it's a curiously gendered term, in that it has "mother" in it, but it seems to be mostly used by boys against other boys. Huh.)

P.S. Is there anything more bossy than telling people they can't use certain words?

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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