#BanBossy: Misguided Effort or Panacea?

by ad.nauseam on April 6, 2015 - 9:03pm

Canada and the United States have certainly made strides forward with respect to gender equality. More and more women are entering the workforce and earning salaries that approach or equal what men earn. However, before we proudly pat ourselves on the back for a job well done, it is critical to understand the nasty aftermath of overt gender discrimination. What were once concerted efforts to keep women out of the world of business have now become nuances in language that are designed to force women to conform to gender roles.

A seemingly harmless word – bossy – has come under fire recently because of its damaging effect on young women. As part of the Lean In effort spearheaded by Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, there has been a movement to remove the term from our vernacular. The movement is founded on the notion that we have a damaging tendency to refer to female leaders as bossy. While an authoritative man would be confident, an authoritative woman would be bossy. This distinction, according to Sandberg and other female leaders, reduces female confidence and ultimately leads women to hop off the corporate ladder. In an attempt to put an end to this phenomenon, a viral campaign has been started to #banbossy.

After perusing the tweets, it has become clear that there are three different camps. The vast majority of messages show an outpouring of support for this form of hashtag activism. Others suggest that there are far more pressing issues concerning women’s rights around the world. There is also a small contingent that argues that women should accept and embrace terms like “bossy.” Rather than banning words, this group argues that women should be taught from a young age to confidently brush off their naysayers. Finally, in typical Internet fashion, there are a bunch of pedants nitpicking at small problems with the movement.

The #banbossy movement raises a number of ethical questions. Most obviously, is it ethical to ban words? Is this a limitation on free speech or an effective solution to a systemic issue? There are many reasons why this is a central ethical issue. Firstly, it is immensely important to understand the intentions of Sheryl Sandberg and the other endorsers of the movement. These individuals may have a good will and are using the Internet to target social problems. On the other hand, these are also celebrities who are constantly vying for a spot in the limelight. The #banbossy movement could simply be yet another public relations campaign to strengthen celebrity brands.

It is also crucial to examine the outcomes of banning a word. By eliminating the word “bossy”, are we accomplishing anything? And what kind of precedent does this set? The emotional reaction to the campaign is that “bossy” is an insult targeted predominantly towards women, and we would be better off without it in our lexicon. But, upon further examination, it is possible that “by trying to ban a word, we actually give it more power to wound” (Warrell, 2014).

As a result, this movement may actually exacerbate the problem. But, more fundamentally, is bossiness even a bad thing? The campaign is morally troubling to me because the word “bossy” can have very different connotations depending on who you ask. Whereas the C-word or the other B-word are inherently derogatory words that attack women, “bossy” is a gender-blind term that is not necessarily an insult. According to Margaret Talbot of the New Yorker (2014), “banning is really only for words that solely degrade or demean.” Sure, one could argue that “bossy” is a demeaning term; however, others could say that the word is used as an honest criticism.

Because banning a term is so problematic, there are a variety of better alternatives. I don’t think the word is problematic in itself – the issue is how girls interpret it. To me, it’s far more feasible to change their interpretation than to change the word itself. Rather than trying to get rid of the term, I believe that women need to be aware of its subliminal effects. Women need to understand that both men and women use the term “bossy” to enforce gender roles. If girls internalize this idea, then I believe they can disarm the word. Other alternatives could be rebranding the word to make the connotations positive or disassociating the word with gender (Talbot, 2014).

From a practical standpoint, the #banbossy campaign was missing one crucial element – evidence. I believe that women are called bossy more than men and I also believe that there is a widespread self-esteem issue among adolescent girls that affects them as professionals (Freeman, 2014). But, is there really such a strong link between the two? Although Sheryl Sandberg’s rhetoric is convincing, she hasn’t empirically shown causation. Until the connection is clearly made, the campaign will continue to be ethically questionable.


Twitter feed: https://twitter.com/search?q=%23banbossy&src=typd


Works Cited


Warrell, Margie. “Sheryl Sandberg, Beyonce…We Need to Embrace Bossy, Not Ban Bossy.” Forbes. n.p., n.d. 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Talbot, Margaret. “Don’t Ban ‘Bossy.’” The New Yorker. n.p., n.d. 13 Mar. 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Freeman, Hadley. “Even If ‘Bossy’ Could Be Banned, There Are Far Better Ways to Boost Girls’ Self-Esteem.” The Guardian. n.p., n.d. 11 Mar. 2014. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.




About the author