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.”
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.