ADJECTIVE (bossier, bossiest)

1. Fond of giving people orders; domineering:

eg. “don’t be so bossy!” 

“a bossy, meddling woman”

In this post, we are exploring the word “bossy,” as used in the recent campaign to “BanBossy,” and connecting the discussion to women in law. The BanBossy campaign was initiated by Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in an attempt to encourage young girls to lead. The campaign alleges that by using this word to describe girls, we in fact discourage leadership qualities and increase the “confidence gap” between men and women (a concept that itself deserves some unpacking).

While the campaign has generated heated debate about its application and overall purpose, it is not out of line to connect the word to gender. The example sentence above from the Oxford Dictionary (of all the examples to give!) is evidence that “bossy” is often implicitly associated with women. There is definitely good reason to examine why and how the association is problematic, but it’s also important to figure out what exactly the word means in the first place.

As the above definition describes, “bossy” isn’t simply synonymous with “leader” rather a type of leader. The synonyms listed in the Oxford Dictionary include domineering, dominating, overbearing, high and mighty, authoritarian, dictatorial, iron-handed, controlling and despotic. Talk about negative connotation. No one would want to be described as despotic or dictatorial. However, we don’t want leaders with such qualities either.

In my opinion, the BanBossy campaign, although well-intentioned, fails to meet its objective by oversimplifying what this word means and why it is a gender equality issue. It is not enough to just ban a word. That’s a game of semantics. While this is a language blog and I’m the first to admit words matter, to censor vocabulary without truly explaining why is not helpful. It’s problematic to call young girls bossy because the word is mostly (only?) associated with women and encourages the stereotype that women who take charge (in any way) are overbearing and aggressive. However, a leader that is in fact overbearing and aggressive is not desirable either, whether male or female. BJ Gallagher writes about this very thing in her thoughtful piece in The Huffington Post. Not only do we want to quash gender stereotypes, we want to grow and develop the very right kind of leaders.

When I was little, I was called bossy–quite a bit actually. To be frank, it didn’t really bother me then and it didn’t inhibit me from putting up my hand or leading a group project. I didn’t like giving people orders as the Oxford definition describes. I just asked questions and wasn’t shy about leading where some of my peers were more reluctant. It was only when I was older–probably in high school–that the word made me squirm. I didn’t want to be perceived as controlling to my classmates or friends because that wasn’t a good thing to be. Over the years, I think I’ve learned how to hone my leadership skills in a way that’s inclusive, democratic, but also assertive when need be. I learned what the word truly signified and what kind of leader I wanted to be. Having said that, I haven’t forgotten my inner bossy girl either. Sometimes, shit just needs to get done.

Last week, I attended a breakfast seminar at WeirFoulds LLP entitled “Legal Issues for Women Entrepreneurs.” The room was full of women– some lawyers, some entrepreneurs, some both. As I looked around at my colleagues, I thought, “I bet all of these women have been called bossy at some point.” Did it stop them from being leaders? Clearly not. Were they the right kind of leader? Impossible to know unless you had the chance to work with each and every one.

But what was discernible was that there was no one type of woman in attendance. For women in law (as in business), the perception is that you have to be the ruthless, dominating kind to succeed. That’s what all successful career women are, right? Bossy and overbearing. That was not the impression you got from this room. It was diverse. There were people of all ages, fields, and personality types. I wondered if being called bossy as a girl helped any of the attendees get to where they were. Did it help them figure out what kind of leader they want to be? Did it develop a thick skin, learning how to brush off insults and take in constructive criticism? Or did it make no difference at all?

For women in law generally, there are a lot of obstacles to overcome. For women of colour or non-citizens or single mothers, even more so. Stereotypes of each of these “kinds” of women certainly form part of those obstacles. But will simply banning the word bossy from our lexicon help dismantle those gendered barriers in the world of law? I doubt it. Is the word deserving of attention in a nuanced and contextual discussion? Absolutely.

This examination of “bossy” illustrates an important point for both language learning and the practice of law: context is always important. A word can take on a very different meaning in a different context. The literal definition is only so helpful. Likewise, a nuanced argument is almost always stronger than one that is clunky and overbroad.

Personally, I think the BanBossy campaign misses the point, although it’s aiming for an admirable objective. No one wants to be led by someone who is “domineering” and takes pleasure in giving orders. At the same time, not all women who take charge are bossy and dictatorial. This is certainly true for women in law. Strict limitations on acceptable vocabulary form only half the battle for equality. Time to start thinking a little deeper, perhaps.

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