You just don’t hear the word bossy used to describe men. It’s a word most often used as a negative trait describing a woman; a woman who might be being assertive or trying to lead. She might be being decisive or strong-willed; she might be saying: this is how things should be done.
I’ve been called bossy all my life. The so-called bossyness has got me into positions of leadership – from that time when (aged seven) I started a girls’ football club at school because the boys wouldn’t let us play (I made posters and everything(!) and had to make an announcement in assembly*). My so-called bossyness saw me picked as the first form captain in year seven, captain of various sports teams throughout school, become a senior prefect, homework club supervisor, to being faculty rep at uni, news editor of the uni paper, to leading teams at work and sitting on boards as a full-grown adult.
Thinking back at the times when I was called bossy when I was younger – there was a part of me that liked it. To me, it meant people could see I clearly liked to lead things.
But somewhere along the line, I started to pick up a different meaning. As I started to realise that the term was only used to describe me because I was a girl. Because women were bossy while men were the bosses. Somewhere along the line, bossy started to mean: unattractive. It reeked of a masculine arrogance that had hints of the grotesque when seen in a woman. It suggested that a woman was acting above her station; that women should be seen – looked at, adored – but not heard leading the charge from the front.
Over the past few months I’ve been honing in on the B word – challenging men when they use it – watching the look of realisation on their faces when I ask if they would have described a man in the same way. And then I find myself using it too. Thirty years of social conditioning means the B word slips out – when I refer to some of my strong-willed female friends; when I apologise in male company for being ‘bossy’. When I deliberately keep my mouth shut and act helplessly for fear of being seen as bossy.
Sometimes women (and men) can be bossy. They can be domineering, oppressive, dictatorial, aggravating. Sometimes I can be those things. These negative traits absolutely should be called out. But they should be called out for what they are; not confused with leadership behaviour mistakenly seen as negative just because it is being found in a female.
Because when you tell a girl she’s bossy, it makes her second guess herself. It makes her hesitate. It makes her think twice about putting herself forward. It makes her wonder whether she’s supposed to lead. It makes her count herself out of changing the world.
In the past two weeks I’ve loved being in the audience to see two of the most powerful women in the world: Beyoncé at the O2 and Malala Yousafzai at the Southbank Centre as part of last week’s Women of the World festival.
Amazingly talented pop star Beyoncé – one of the leading women behind the new Ban Bossy campaign (check out the video) – is more than just a pop star, but an icon of our time – a woman not afraid to raise her voice and dare to set the agenda rather than follow it.
Malala too is not afraid to raise her voice in the face of criticism. “Words have power,” she said on Saturday. “If we don’t speak and we don’t raise our voices we can’t see change. When we speak, we make our dreams come true.”
Words do have power. Even simple words like ‘bossy’ can stop a girl in her tracks – whether she realises it or not.
And anything that limits girls from reaching their full potential – from leading – is a barrier to making the world better. Because according to the Girl Effect: “Girls are the most powerful force for change on the planet.”
Because in a world where girls are married off as children, where a third of all women in the European Union have been affected by sexual violence, where girls are victims of female genital mutilation – do we really need something else to hold women back?
So let’s stop using it. Let’s make an effort to ban bossy.
Let’s give girls examples of strong women who aren’t ‘bossy’, but are the boss. Women like Beyoncé, girls like Malala, and women like this amazing one in Proverbs 31:
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant;
she brings her food from afar.
15 She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household
and portions for her maidens.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She dresses herself[e] with strength
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff,
and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor
and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid of snow for her household,
for all her household are clothed in scarlet.[f]
22 She makes bed coverings for herself;
her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the gates
when he sits among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them;
she delivers sashes to the merchant.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing,
and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom,
and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Give her of the fruit of her hands,
and let her works praise her in the gates.
*The club lasted three weeks.