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Banning Bossy: Language and Social Perceptions

It’s an interesting question: By removing a word from our lexicon, can we change the way we perceive things?

That’s the premise behind a new campaign called ‘Ban Bossy.’ Created by LeanIn.Org, a non-profit founded by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, the campaign is intended to encourage girls to lead by removing the negative stigma associated with the word ‘bossy’ – by actually removing the word ‘bossy’ from our vocabulary.

According to the website, “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a “leader.” Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy.” Words like bossy send a message: don’t raise your hand or speak up. By middle school, girls are less interested in leading than boys—a trend that continues into adulthood. Together we can encourage girls to lead.”

But does removing the word bossy from conversations change the way we categorize assertive young ladies? Many critics aren’t so sure.

Ann Friedman from New York Magazine writes “the main reason I can’t stomach a bossy ban, though, is that it represents a feminist strategy that’s failed in the past, and it plays into a negative characterization of feminism more generally…it’s so frustrating to watch Lean In try to expand girls’ options by restricting the way we talk about them. It’s counterintuitive, and it makes feminists look like thought police rather than the expansive forward-thinkers we really are.”

Similarly, Maggie Warrell at Forbes suggests focusing efforts on reclaiming the word bossy to turn it into a positive thing. “I believe what would serve women more is helping them to embrace their “inner CEO” so that no matter what obstacles they face, or criticism they get, they won’t be deterred from pursuing their ambitions with the same bravery and self-confidence we tend to associate with the male gender stereotype.”

In any case, the campaign’s efforts to encourage female leadership should be applauded. Even if the strategy is, perhaps, misguided, the campaign is sparking conversations about how women are labeled in American culture and that’s a good thing.