Sandberg, Banning Bossy is the Wrong Answer

Written by Emily

Sheryl Sandberg has rallied a troop of impressive women and men in her campaign to “Ban Bossy”. They have buttons and videos and media attention. They are a force to be reckoned with. Yes!

Except no.

I used the good old Apple Thesaurus to find synonyms for the words used in a campaign interview, and I cross checked them with the Oxford Dictionary just in case.

Bossy: domineering, pushy, overbearing, imperious, officious, high-handed, authoritarian, dictatorial, controlling; informal high and mighty. ANTONYMS submissive.

Leader: pioneer, front runner, world leader, world-beater, innovator, trailblazer, groundbreaker, trendsetter, torchbearer, pathfinder.

The general argument to “ban bossy” seems to be that parents, teachers, the world needs to stop calling girls bossy because it’s stifling their leadership potential. I hate to think that girls aren’t assuming leadership roles because they’ve been called bossy. That’s an unfortunate result especially since being bossy and being a leader are not the same thing. And if in the business world or the music world or the media world, they are the same thing, then maybe we need a cultural or social shift in the way those environments function.

If my children are being domineering or pushy or dictatorial–whether we’re talking about my son or my daughters–I’m going to correct that behavior because while I want to foster self-assuredness and strong convictions in my kids, I don’t want to foster the notion that they can or should bulldoze over anyone.


All over social media, I see women celebrating their bossiness, shouting in all CAPS: I AM BOSSY! AND I’M PROUD OF IT.


I’m sorry that we’ve created work environments that demand controlling, overbearing behavior to succeed. And I’m sorry we’re pretending that bossiness is a positive quality instead of teaching our children how to be innovators and trailblazers and leaders without being bossy. If work environments cultivated and celebrated other ways of being, that would be truly innovative and forward-thinking. It might even inspire more women to choose to engage in other roles because that’s the ultimate goal of the campaign, right? To create female COOs and CEOs?

I’m on board with the notion that words matter. I believe that 100%. Words matter. Words have power and emotion. Connotation. Bossy has negative connotations, and even the Oxford Dictionary used a female pronoun in its sample sentence. Rude. I’m all for raising semantic awareness. Let’s use words purposefully. Let’s use them correctly.

Let’s not confuse leadership and strong convictions with bossiness. Those are not synonyms and people who use them interchangeably are wrong. People who use bossy to describe girls who speak up or have an opinion, those people are wrong.

In a campaign video to ban bossy, Beyonce shares, “I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.” Right. They don’t have to be the same…I hope. And if they do, that’s where the change needs to happen. And Beyonce, in a campaign about the power of words, I guess I’ll ignore the violent narrative you shared with your husband on stage at the Grammy’s when you sang “Drunk in Love”. Your audience probably won’t get the Tina Turner and Ike Turner references, anyway. Are we hoping girls recognize the dominatrix attire as sexually liberating? Or maybe you were just emphasizing your distaste for the word bossy by illustrating it’s antonym: submissive. Well played. Did you also know that Jaime Foxx would publicly apologize to JayZ for oogling you thus reinforcing the notion that you are JayZ’s property? Or was that a coincidence?

I hate to be a hater. I do. I love that there are powerful women working together with a mission to empower young girls. I love that. I don’t love the focus. I get that bossy is tangible. We’ve heard it at play dates and on playgrounds. We’ve heard it in the classroom. Sometimes it’s used correctly. Sometimes not.

Perhaps the biggest problem with bossy is that kids don’t get it. They misinterpret it. They think that when they’re telling their friends on the playground that they have to do it “this way”  or “that way” or “do it right now” that it’s their leading that’s the issue. It’s not the leading or the idea they have that’s an issue but how they’re doing it and how it’s making other people feel. The other kids are important, too.

If we’re giving girls or boys a free-pass on bossy behavior, condoning it, pretending it’s leadership, playgrounds and school yards are going to become intolerable for the majority–kind of like the work world, I guess.

I’m not going to judge bossy kids; they’re testing the waters. I do hope that someone in their lives helps them hone their leadership skills (if they have them), so they become successful CEOs, COOs, CFOs, presidents, bosses…but not bossy ones. Because honestly, they’re the worst.

Categories: Career, Culture, Emily, Family

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16 replies

  1. I wrote a post about this the other day, I love the idea of taking a negative and turning it into a positive and helping your kids turn bossy into leadership. But, one of my opening sentences was “sometimes bossy is just bossy” and I won’t tolerate that disrespect coming out of my child, but I want to take his negatives and help him find an outlet and turn the negative into a positive. Just getting rid of the word or changing the meaning of the word isn’t the solution. Working with your child, teaching them and helping them learn is a good place to start, tho. Great post Emily!!

    • Yes! Sometimes bossy is just bossy! I’d much prefer leaders who are not bossy. And if we aim to change the connotation of this word, the waters are going to get rather muddied when rude people celebrate their rudeness. There is no doubt that some bossy people have leadership potential. I hope the adults in their lives do as you say, and hone those qualities to create positive leaders who won’t bulldoze over people (which is what bossiness tends to do). I’m with you, Kate!

      I do appreciate that Sandberg and her posse are raising awareness about the power of words and the need to empower our kids.

  2. I hate that word bossy. That would be my stepmother’s word for me. I prefer gifted at negotiation. Or able to see clearly how others can better accomplish a goal. LOL

    • Hahahaha! Brenda, I prefer those, too. I don’t like bossy if it’s misused, which I think it often is. I just don’t want people to justify meanness or oppressing others in the name of bossiness, which they think means they’re leaders. Does that make sense?

      • Yes, I get it. It’s tricky to raise a daughter to have her head on straight about this issue. I’m not entirely sure my head is on straight, in fact. Does it look crooked to you?

  3. I took Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign to mean they want to ban the connotation of the word as applied to women. She means that when women are leaders they’re called bossy, not that female leaders are domineering. The current issue of Cosmo actually has a big spread on this, and they do an interesting thing where they pair like-minded men and women (for example Scalia vs Sotomayer) and give clippings from news articles about each. Where the woman is called bossy, bitchy, etc, the man is called assertive, truthful, etc.

    My husband and I were talking about this last night as I read it, and I had to admit that I suffer from some of the same societal preconceptions. Paraphrasing the article — when a male boss is a poor leader, he’s a jerk. When a female boss is one, it’s because she’s a woman.

    It’s a tough world.

    • I agree with you quite a bit here, but I think that people misuse the word bossy. If someone calls a girl bossy because she has an opinion, that’s an incorrect use of the word. If someone calls a girl on the playground bossy because she is telling everyone what to do, demanding they do it her way and bulldozing other kids’ ideas, then she is bossy. Bossy behavior should be corrected, in my opinion. Bossy is a teachable moment and doesn’t necessarily align with leadership skills. Men who are bossy are jerks or a-holes, but they get the jobs, which is a problem. The ultimate goal of the campaign, according to Sandberg is to get more women into leadership roles such as congress, COOs, CEOs, etc. I would much prefer to see a shift in the way those work environments function. Let’s not reward bossiness in anyone and certainly, let’s make room for female leaders. Unless we intend to completely redefine the word bossy, we’re going to muddy the waters. Rude behavior will be celebrated and embraced. Rude behaviors do not a leader make…necessarily and if it does, it shouldn’t. I’m all for opening up a conversation on this and making more space for women leaders. Girls who don’t lead because they’re called bossy weren’t taught what the word means or given the opportunity to hone their leadership skills.

      It is a tough world. It’s a tough work world. And we use words to put women (and men) in their place. I do believe that women make active choices in their lives, though. I don’t think they’re passive agents–see all the women in the campaign videos and many women who choose different roles. We can help our children become leaders–if they want to be leaders–and we can make spaces for them to lead in their own way.

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting! I appreciate the dialogue, and I do not disagree with you at all.

    • This was such a hard one for me to write because I agree with much of it, but I don’t like the execution. I love the attention on words to oppress and label. I hope the initiative encourages people to think before they speak but doesn’t prevent people from correcting oppressive behaviors.

  4. Hello Mrs. Gallo!
    While I get your point that girls sometimes really are “bossy,” I agree with the campaign that “bossy” needs to go because it has so many meanings and has been used inappropriately to the point where it’s only meaning is meaninglessness. I would say that, perhaps, the solution is to use more specific words to describe to our daughters what the problem is with their behavior, instead of just “bossy” which is kind of a lazy way of correcting behavior, now that we realize what the word has become.

    • Yes! I am with you, Kylie. However, I don’t want the expectation to be that girls need to behave in the same traditionally oppressive way their male counterparts have behaved in order to assume leadership roles. I want the non-bossy, the non-a-holes to feel empowered to be leaders, too. I want there to be space for them, too. Which means an entire social and cultural shift. I get that.

      I think the women in this campaign are good intentioned. But I think the waters are going to be muddied by the idea that we’re “banning bossy” because we’re celebrating those qualities in girls. This could cause a slew of people to be further oppressed by people with bossy traits.

      You are a rockstar for reading and commenting! You are a leader, and I am thrilled!

    • Kylie, please continue to be the leader you are and an inspiration for all the kids with whom you work. You are doing such good work! I am so proud of you!

  5. Thoughtful, as always, Emily. I think the whole campaign is getting confusing: ban it! Don’t ban it; be proud! I’m more on the side of slogans that say what to proactively DO rather than what NOT to do. I guess that “Ban bossy” isn’t telling us what NOT to do, but “Be a leader” is just more positive. But then, it’s vague…

  6. To be honest, I think that if women are having to acquire stereotypically masculine traits in order to succeed in their chosen careers, that demonstrates that there is a problem. Yes, they might be successful but if they have to use dominance and pushiness in order to achieve their goals, then nothing has been fixed and there is still an underlying problem of discrimination against women in the workplace.

  7. While I get your point that girls sometimes really are “bossy,” I agree with the campaign that “bossy” needs to go because it has so many meanings and has been used inappropriately to the point where it’s only meaning is meaninglessness. I would say that, perhaps, the solution is to use more specific words to describe to our daughters what the problem is with their behavior, instead of just “bossy” which is kind of a lazy way of correcting behavior, now that we realize what the word has become.
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