Is ‘bossy’ a sexist term? When did you last hear a boy or man get called ‘bossy’?
Thomas (father of a wonderful little girl) put me onto this article by Kathleen Deveny which argues that:
We ask girls to walk a fine line between being strong and being likable. It’s a line we typically allow boys to trample.
She says she observes her daughter being ‘a little bossy,’ as she herself was as a child and perhaps still is (she is, after all, a boss):
But I am going to stop fretting about bossiness for one simple reason: I have rarely heard anyone describe a little boy as bossy. Boys are assertive and confident, active and rambunctious. They may also be aggressive, wild or disruptive. But bossy is a label that parents, babysitters and teachers apply most often to the sugar-and-spice gender. Little girls hurl it at each other as an epithet. It may be partly because girls tend to be more verbal than boys, says Wendy Mogel, a child psychologist in L.A., and that comes off as bossy. She also believes that because of both nature and nurture, girls take more responsibility than boys for their social environment. Which leads to those “You sit there. No! Over there” discussions I sometimes hear my daughter having with her friends.
And she relates this difference in how we treat boys and girls with the double standards women experience in professional life:
“Telling other people what to do is a leadership quality,” says Jennifer Allyn, a managing director at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. “There’s another B word at work that we’re all afraid of.” And that’s the essence of it. Our fear is that bossy girls grow up to be those abrasive women around our offices. (Oops, maybe that’s me!) That kind of behavior might be tolerated from men in authority. But we demand that even the most powerful women play nice. Men are respected; women are liked. Allow your daughter to be bossy on the playground, and she may just grow up to be like Hillary Clinton. (Oh, my God! The first serious female presidential candidate! Get that kid into therapy!)
I hadn’t thought much about the gender angle on this until now, but I think Deveney is right. ‘Bossy’ is used almost exclusively to stigmatise assertive behaviour in girls and women. It should be eliminated from our vocabulary.
I tend not to use the word bossy about anyone at all because I found it so hurtful as a child. It wasn’t an inaccurate description (!) but it’s definitely one of those words that is used to paint someone more negatively than the behaviour it describes.
If children are being bossy, they need to learn to communicate better and share power, but they’re not bad people. It’s not like they’re being dishonest or violent or unkind. The improvement we want to see is a matter of nuance and maturity; the problem is more like being tactless than being nasty.
Like some other words that tend to stick to children (careless, shy and brainy come to mind – what else?) ‘bossy’ is a word that can hurt and haunt, so I don’t see any need to use it on anyone, male or female.
With all those things, I imagine we are better to describe the behaviour than to label the person. Even better would be describing the behaviour and skills we want our kids to learn:
- I think Sarah might want you to listen to her ideas as well as tell her yours.
- Asking is often better than telling.
- Make sure you take turns choosing the game.