If you don't let women be bossy - society will miss out.

Marginalise women and the inevitable result is that society misses out on social capital.

Facebook COO’s Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts of the USA’s CEO Anna Maria Chávez recognised this in their Wall Street Journal article on the #banbossy campaign raising awareness of how gendered use of language discourages girls to lead:

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,” write the proponents of the #banbossy campaign.

Having been involved in girls’ education in Australia for over 25 years, this campaign caught my attention with its broad message about the impact of language on young women’s beliefs about their capacity to lead. And as headmistress of a girls’ school, one of my areas of focus is empowering young women and providing them with opportunities to have a voice.

Using the word ‘bossy’ to describe assertive or opinionated women is one example of negative language used, either consciously or by habit, to hold women in more submissive roles in society. Alongside parents, educators have a responsibility to teach young women that empowerment is important, and that for example, “the girl with the courage to raise her hand in class becomes the woman with the confidence to assert herself at work”.

I agree with Sandberg and Chávez when they write, “Calling a girl ‘bossy’ not only undermines her ability to see herself as a leader, but it also influences how others treat her.”

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg.

Language is a powerful tool. There are many gendered phrases and adjectives that have historically been used to disempower women; think about terms such as “nagging” or “hysterical” for example. Consider some of the adjectives commonly used in the media to describe women in powerful positions in politics or the corporate world. As Annabel Crabb so succinctly put it when writing for the Drum about seeking a level-playing field for women in politics:

The ultimate goal is for gender to be unremarkable.”

‘Bossy’ is not a word with positive connotations, nor does it describe good leadership. Yet, it’s a word that provides a succinct example of how language is used in a gender-biased manner to discourage a girl from assertively speaking her mind.

The power of the #banbossy campaign with its focus on gendered use of language and leadership for women is in its ability to remind men and women of all ages that leadership is not a feminine or masculine quality. And sometimes leadership means taking charge of a situation and making your voice heard – that’s a good thing, and if done well, it’s not bossy.


Educators of young women are acutely aware that if you don’t empower young women to have a voice, then society loses half of its social capital. Women are under-represented in high-ranking areas of most professions and women are under-represented in senior management positions and on boards.

Girls’ schools are in a unique position to give young women the opportunity to make a positive contribution towards addressing gender inequality in leadership positions in business and public life through the experiences they offer their students. Co-educational schools can also recognise the need to create opportunities for girls to lead; for example, this might entail single gender classrooms in certain subjects and examining school policies for their ability to encourage girls to lead and excel without pressure to conform to gender stereotypes.

Judith Poole.

The Alliance of Girls’ Schools (AGSA) expresses it this way, All the leadership roles in girls’ schools are filled by girls: from the captain of the touch football team to the head of the student body; from the first trombone in the school orchestra to the main part in the school play; and from student leadership groups to the leaders of every school club. Younger students see these female leaders as role models and learn that girls can lead in any field.

The #banbossy campaign materials point out that by middle school, girls are 25 per cent less likely than boys to say they like taking the lead and that this trend continues into adulthood – that is not a product of biology, that’s social influence of the wrong kind.

I like the simple truth stated in the #banbossy materials for schools: “Classrooms are where many girls first flex their leadership muscles.” As the AGSA quote above demonstrates, schools can also provide myriad opportunities for leadership through co-curricular, student leadership and service programs.

Whether females #ownbossy or #banbossy, I’d like to see this powerful campaign turned around as a positive push to encourage girls to #bebold: be bold and try something new, be bold in developing your skills, be bold and articulate a persuasive argument, be bold in speaking out for the disadvantaged, be bold about your acts of service to your communities, speak out about what you value – that’s really what good leadership is all about.

Judith Poole is the Headmistress of Abbotsleigh, an independent Anglican day and boarding school for girls and the President of the Alliance of Girls’ Schools Australasia.

Do you think we need to stop calling girls ‘bossy’ and instead encourage their leadership skills? Or do you think the word ‘bossy’ deserves its negative connotation? Were you ever called bossy as a child?

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