IS “BOSSY” A BAD WORD?
Published in The Sun on 16 March 2014
THE word “bossy” may soon be considered inappropriate to describe women in the workplace, especially those in positions of power and authority where they have to take charge and speak their minds. In fact, the word may soon join other words such as “bitchy” and “aggressive” which are considered sexist and discriminatory when referring to the personality traits of a female co-worker.
Facebook chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, has started a campaign called “Ban Bossy” to discourage and eventually disallow the use of the word “bossy” for women and girls. The belief is that among other forms of gender discrimination and stereotyping, the use of the word “bossy” creates problem of unequal childhood treatment of girls and boys. At home and in school, girls who are extroverted and show leadership tendencies are often described as “bossy” and “overly ambitious” while boys who lead are described as “strong” and “determined”. Like other forms of social stereotyping, this is carried over to the workplace where women who have strong personalities and take charge are negatively perceived as bossy while their male counterparts are seen to be naturally assertive.
Sandberg’s argument is that the description of “bossy” is more likely to be directed at girls and women with a range of associated traits such as “domineering”, “authoritative”, “overbearing”, “tough”, “opinionated” and “high-handed”.
When men show these same tendencies they are said to be demonstrating positive traits of leadership. Sandberg’s point is that as more and more women enter the workforce and assume positions of power, it is important to insist on equal treatment and evaluation, including the description of their leadership qualities.
Should women be offended if they are called bossy at work? Is “bossy” a discriminatory term used to put down a woman’s personality or work style? In fact, is being bossy considered a negative trait in the workplace?
To answer the last question first, the word “bossy” has certainly acquired more negative than positive connotations when used to describe one’s office colleagues. However, it is not unusual for a man to be negatively perceived as bossy or overbearing. Whether male or female, bossy managers are not liked by their subordinates and co-workers. In today’s more democratic work environment, managers and leaders who are overbearing or domineering are not likely to get the cooperation and support of their work teams.
Office evaluation will mark these as negative traits.
It is for this reason that women (and men) should feel offended and discriminated against if they are called “bossy”. The word has become prejudicial and is unhelpful in providing a fair assessment of one’s colleagues. Instead, the focus should be on how to highlight the positive and indispensable nature of “bossiness”, turning it from a word that foregrounds the domineering and overbearing characteristics to one used to describe the positive qualities of leadership.
In the workplace, being motivated and motivating are essential qualities to get the cogs of the office wheel moving, and being assertive and opinionated is necessary to encourage optimal contributions from its human resource.
The important thing is how, at each level in the office hierarchy, workers can be motivated and motivating, assertive and opinionated without appearing bossy and controlling. Therein lies the secret of true leadership which should see the combination of authority and power, intuitions and insights with outstanding management and communication skills.
As more and more women assume leadership positions and are accepted as equal partners in the workplace, the tendency to assess them in a negative or discriminatory manner will rightfully be replaced by objective criteria which contribute positively to the growth and development of the organisation. Women at work must stand shoulder to shoulder with their male colleagues in developing positive traits including being confident, assertive and speaking their minds. They should channel their energies into productive methods of leadership and dismiss the prejudices and perceptions that they are bossy.
The lesson to children and to the parents and teachers who raise and nurture them, should be that being opinionated, motivated and motivating, that is showing traits of leadership is to be encouraged. When properly channelled, these characteristics will empower them as they enter the workforce and contribute to society.
In this day and age where children’s upbringing is more equal and less discriminatory at home, where they are exposed to the same universal education, skills and training, and where work opportunities are getting more equal, girls should be encouraged to develop their self-esteem and strengths. They must understand that to advance their careers they have to empower themselves to be outspoken, opinionated and tough when necessary. Women must be as assertive as men in the workplace and should not be discriminated against if they are. It is indeed time to remove the word “bossy” from the office register.