Ever since I started school I’ve been a bright kid. In primary school, my hand was always up. I was in the gifted classes, I was labeled a leader, and I was confident in sharing my opinion, making friends and directing the conversation.
But by the time I reached intermediate school, things had begun to change. When given group projects I was continually told to stop being the “mum”. Not because I was caring or looked after everyone but because I “nagged them”. I was labeled “bossy” for the same characteristics that had previously been called leading. A label that not so surprisingly, none of my male counterparts got. The male students who took charge, raised their voice and tried to lead were told they had leadership potential, earned respect and were even labeled caring for trying to guide others.
Now, I often find myself sat in a university lecture hall in fear of being called on. I often bite my tongue in discussion because I don’t want to be seen as telling everyone what they should think. Or I lack the confidence to back up my opinion. When someone needs to take charge I’m far less inclined to lean in, because I don’t want to deal with the strife of being called “mum.” Never mind battling to get my voice heard.
Using the word “bossy” severely impacted my, and other women’s, confidence and leadership ambitions. It’s something that started in middle school, but keeps growing and continues throughout life. And it is an inherently gendered insult.
Bossy is defined as domineering, overbearing and fond of giving people orders. Yet it is commonly associated with any woman who asserts herself. I’ve read many articles like “how not to let a bossy woman undermine you in the workplace,” or “10 types of women men don’t want to marry” which of course included the “bossy woman”.
We are more likely to call an intelligent, organised, confident, logical girl who also puts her hand up bossy. Whereas her male counterpart will be admired for the same traits. As Sheryl Sandberg said “imagine if every girl who was called bossy was told she has leadership potential” This is because behind the hostility is a regressive, persistent view of what a woman should be. A woman should be kind, the feminine ideal, accommodating, a mother, a “good girl.”
But these stereotypes are a trap for women, if you exhibit the more ‘masculine traits’ associated with being a good and successful leader then you will be labeled bossy and disliked. But if you exhibit the soft skills of a woman such as caring for other, being modest, accommodating, then you are not seen as a worthy or good leader.
These stereotypes are the reason we need campaigns such as “Ban Bossy” by Lean In and Girl Scouts of America. It aims to promote self-censorship and criticism of the word bossy, recognising its negative impact on young women and their leadership. It is about starting a conversation and getting people to recognise the subconscious stereotypes and gender bias that come with the word.
So now I sit in a university lecture hall reminding myself of these facts. I make a conscious effort to call out not just the use of “bossy” but any other gendered subconscious bias fueled comment. Simply posing the question. Would that still have been said if the individual was male? I still feel grief that for so long I carried around guilt of being “bossy” and allowed this to impact my self confidence, my self worth both physically, mentally, emotionally and interpersonally. My hope is not to ban bossy but simply the hope that when the time comes around, my daughter can be strong, assertive and independent without shame, or have anxiety of the word “bossy.” Equally, I hope that my son can be tender, emotional, passive without fear of the similar ridicule.
By Maisy Bently