So, Sheryl Sandberg, Condoleezza Rice and Anna Maria Chávez have launched a campaign calling on us to ‘Ban Bossy’, and celebs from Beyoncé to Victoria Beckham are backing the cause. I have to admit, my first reaction was to snort – “We are not bossy, and to prove it we demand that the word is banned!” That slogan could only have been written by women so utterly immune to the word that they don’t notice the oxymoronic humour.
I’m not generally a fan of banning things, but then I’m not a fan of labels either. Sandberg hits the nail on the head when she says: “When a little boy asserts himself, he’s called a ‘leader’. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded ‘bossy’.”
But why – out of all the potential candidates for words most likely to hold women back – has this one in particular been chosen? I can think of a few more off the top of my head: ‘controlling’, ‘hysterical’, ’emotional’… and that’s without venturing into the numerous words employed to shame women over their sexuality.
And it’s not just words used to criticise that oppress women, but words intended to praise. ‘Empathic’, ‘caring’ and ‘beautiful’: these words are insidiously manipulative, disguised as compliments.
If we are ever going to seriously challenge gender stereotypes, we need to forfeit the warm glow we get whenever we hear ourselves praised for having more empathy than men, and that lofty feeling that comes from occupation of the moral high ground. Empathy is great, but we are all – women and men – born with it. It’s one of those inbuilt qualities that enable us to survive as a species – praising a woman for her empathy is like praising her for breathing.
‘Caring’, ‘helpful’, ‘kind’ – all put us in strait-jacket. We earn our right to exist through what we give to others; our value is judged by how altruistic and unselfish we are. Of course they are lovely qualities in a person – but they are the same qualities that somehow paralyse us in the push for a promotion, or simply in making our voices heard.
Perhaps the quality that holds girls back the most is being deemed ‘beautiful’. I was once in a relationship where my partner felt it necessary to continually gasp about how beautiful I was (I know, I know). I have never felt so insecure about both my looks and my value as a person in all my life. I began to see myself as decoration, a beautiful object, and I dreaded the day he noticed my imperfections for the first time.
We all reassure our girls of their ‘inner beauty’ and insist that they are beautiful, but the result is to reinforce the importance of a quality that is passive and mute. We never insist that our boys have inner beauty. It’s part of a parent’s job is to embarrass their children with gushing praise, and it would be a grey old world if we never used words like ‘beautiful’, but use it too much and it starts to sound suspiciously like a demand.
When a woman is criticised – branded bossy, or controlling – at least she can get angry and fight back. Being on the receiving end of gushing praise and complimented for qualities like empathy and beauty keeps us stuck at the back of the room, letting others go first as we try not to frown unattractively or sit in a position that makes our thighs look fat.
So congratulations, ladies, on a bold campaign with a bold name; thanks for shouting it out unapologetically and for showing girls that it’s okay to be a leader. But let’s not forget all those other words that circumscribe girls’ ambitions in more subtle ways: those words that come disguised as compliments.
Originally published on Mumsnet