****Trigger warning: I will use “that word” in this piece.****
Maybe you’ve heard about Sheryl Sandberg’s new campaign to ban the word “bossy” in reference to little girls/young women.
I’m here to tell you it’s a load of horse hockey. And if you don’t believe me, check out this great article at Forbes.
While I agree with the Forbes writer that the timing of this campaign is unusual and that the term “bossy” is gender neutral, not to mention the description of being “bossy” doesn’t denote leadership or leadership capabilities, I think the bigger point here is that if you’re after empowering women, there’s a bigger word-fish to fry.
“She’s such a bitch.”
It’s lobbed at women arbtrarily and frequently. While bossy may be the word that struck Sheryl Sandberg at a young age, I am sure she’s been called a bitch far more often than referred to as bossy both personally and in the work place. And the fact that she appears to be ambivalent of it is even more troubling.
It’s used by men and women alike. It’s used to refer to women who are leaders and assertive be it with their children at home or in the workplace. It’s also used toward little girls to demean them if they show any type of opinion. And it’s used to emasculate men. A word once exclusively used for female dogs is now lobbed casually even between friends. What was once a low and mean insult is sometimes used (abused?) as a term of almost endearment which doesn’t rob the word of its negative connotations, if anything, it magnifies them.
When one describes a friend as a “bitch” in a “loving” or “joking” manner, what he or she is doing is actually defining their friendship with this person as someone they consider lower, subservient even, to themselves. It is to look down on their “friend” in condescension not love. It does not take away the sting of the word, if anything, it makes it more cutting.
But why should Sheryl Sandberg choose to ban “bitch” instead of “bossy?” Because women in power, whether as mothers, teachers, or executives (or anything else) are almost always referred to as bitches when they simply employ leadership skills even if it’s not done in a “bossy” way. When a woman executive makes a decision to cut staff or redirect funds in a company and does so without an overt emotional message, she is often considered a “cold-calculating bitch.” When a mother decides that she doesn’t want her child playing with the foul-mouthed peer who lives down the street she is considered an “uptight bitch.” If a woman asks rather than demands her co-workers to help her on a project she is a “helpless bitch.” If a woman in any position of authority asks those working below her to buckle down and get their work done, she is a “bossy bitch” (see what I did there?). And most disturbing, little girls who show genuine leadership potential (decisiveness, rational thought, level-headedness etc) they are often considered “bitches-in-training”.
Sheryl Sandberg is worried that little girls will not live up to their potential if she is told she is bossy. Perhaps, however, Sandberg, in an attempt to empower girls is ignoring will-fully that, if approached correctly, a little girl who is called out on over-assertiveness could learn even more important leadership skills, perhaps, how to listen to others and consider worthwhile ideas that she herself did not generate. But what she has failed to consider is how the perceived notions of women in power being considered “bitches” has stunted the maturation of women. Not only are women not reaching higher in the workplace, we see mothers obsessed with the notion of being their children’s friend and so worried that their child won’t like them that they fail to instruct a child properly. Women are so afraid of being disliked by their own children, by fearing their children will call them bitches one day, we have an entire generation of “mothers” who allow their children to run their homes. And a mother who dares to correct her child for back-talk, rudeness, or misbehavior is vilified for teaching her child how to be a productive member of society. Who wins when this kind of parenting goes on? When we allow women to be referred to as bitches for living out their vocation whether in the domestic or workplace vocation, we force women to aim lower or not at all.
And clearly trying to sanitize the word is not working. So, how about this, let’s ban the word “bitch.” Let’s not use it in anger or casually. Let’s teach each person to live up to his or her potential and not demean others by name-calling when he or she reaches higher.