Who’s The Boss? – Why The “Ban Bossy” Campaign Needs To Take A Very Long Hard Look at Itself
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “Bossy” in the following way : “Fond of giving orders, domineering”. These are necessary qualities in people who earn a living being in charge of other people. The usage of the word is not as cut and dried as that of course. It’s a word that is exclusively directed at women or, on occasion, small children. It is always derogatory.
It for this reason that Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook boss, has launched the “Ban Bossy” campaign. She has the support of such notable and influential women as Condoleeza Rice, Victoria Beckham and Beyonce. The message of the campaign is simple : It is inappropriate to use the word “Bossy” to describe women in charge, so don’t do it. As Beyonce puts it in the promotional video “I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”.
I sympathise with this sentiment, but my sympathy clashes with my experience. I have been a manager for twenty years now and I have never, heard a female manager called “Bossy”. Never, not even once. I’ve heard them being called “a cow”, “a bitch” or even “a fucking psycho”, but never bossy. I also hasten to add that it is always other women that have employed these epithets. When faced with a woman of commanding presence, men tend to act a bit bewildered and behave like naughty schoolboys who have been caught red handed doing something wrong.
So why have I never witnessed the “Bossy” phenomenon? Perhaps it’s because I’m known to be a bit left wing about workers’ rights, and bosses are just fellow workers at the end of the day. If a female boss was enquiring in a forceful manner as to why the hell the thing she asked to be done yesterday was not yet done and the guilty malingerer called her “Bossy” when she was out of earshot, I would have to concur with Beyonce. I would have to say : “Of course she’s being Bossy, you moron, she’s the Boss. If she was a Chef, you wouldn’t call her ‘Cheffy’ like it was a bad thing, would you?”
Or perhaps it’s due to the industry I’m in. I’m a retail manager and retail has very narrow margins. There’s no gravy train and so very little room for promotion via an old boy network. Every penny of profit is scrimped and strived for and so people tend to be promoted on merit, regardless of gender. All initial promotions are down to hard physical work, not schmoozing. Ok, maybe a little bit of schmoozing, but mainly hard work.
I’ve never really understood this to be honest. If you want good managers, surely you should promote the lazy bastards who contrive to get everyone else to do their work for them? This behaviour is just delegation if you think about it, and good delegation is the most important tool in any manager’s toolkit.
I am not saying that women in charge are never called “Bossy”, only that I have never seen this myself. Women obviously do get called “Bossy” otherwise there wouldn’t be a campaign against it in the first place. I have seen women called “Bossy” in other contexts though, and it is always for the same reasons. The lady in question is always either trying to control something she has no business trying to control or she is just habitually using the Big Stick when perhaps the odd carrot might be in order.
The word “bossy” is only ever used when people are being made uncomfortable with the manner in which instructions are given to them. The “Ban Bossy” campaign implies that this discomfort is purely down to the fact that it is a woman giving the orders. But is this always the case?
If you are a female entrepreneur and you have been called bossy then you might want to ask yourself why. There is a difference between commanding respect and demanding respect. It is very easy, when you are under pressure, to fall into the trap of just taking out The Big Stick from your management toolkit and ignoring all the other tools that are in there.
If you are called bossy, maybe that’s an indication that you should look to the appropriateness your own behaviour. Do you have a tendency to use a sledgehammer to crack a walnut? Are you getting shouty when the desired result could be attained, far more painlessly for everyone concerned, by employing another tactic? Guilt, bribery, blackmail, flattery etc.
If your male charges do not act respectfully towards you, is that because you have not actually done anything to gain their respect? Or if you did have their respect, have you done something to lose it again?
Is it perhaps time to get back to basics and re-read The One Minute Manager one more time. You know, take a minute out of each day to remember that the people who work for you are your most important resource. Time to admit to yourself that you have lost your way a little and are, in fact, acting like a bit of a twat?
You see, the word “Bossy” is a not just some random insult thrown by men who don’t like women telling them what to do. It is a very carefully chosen and precisely targeted description. It’s a sort of blokey shorthand for all of the behaviours I have just mentioned and much more besides. It’s used a bit like the way women use the word “bastard”.
If a group of girls are sitting in a bar and one of them is bemoaning a failed relationship, she might well say “he was a bastard.” Any other woman overhearing this conversation will probably be able to reel off a litany of exactly what the ex-boyfriend did with at least 90% accuracy. Unless the girl bemoaning the failed relationship is proper high maintenance, in which case the hapless ex was probably just doing his best to achieve the almost impossible task of keeping her from being angry all of the time.
This is all just the world seen from my highly male perspective of course. The world of women is, naturally, right behind the “Ban Bossy” campaign. Well no, not entirely. Julie Bindel, founder of Justice For Women, has said “You must educate people about terms that are derogatory. Banning never works”. Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet is also against banning the word “Bossy” but does say that we should “think more carefully before using it.
So there are some women who recognise that sometimes bossy really is the most appropriate word. And it is derogatory because the behaviour which invoked its use requires it to be. Bossiness is assertiveness that’s lost its sense of direction and perspective. Or, as The Daily Mail put it “critics have suggested that the campaigners’ opposition to the word may say more about them than women in general.” I agree. And believe you me, I do not take agreeing with The Daily Mail lightly.
© Copyright Michael Grimes 2014