Bossy or just assertive?

The #BanBossy movement encourages young girls to become leaders

A few days ago, Sheryl Sandberg of the Lean In movement, and with the support of big names such as the Girl Scouts of America and Beyoncé, launched a new campaign: #BanBossy, aimed at the association of assertive girls with the pejorative “bossy” label.

I intended to write this post earlier in the week, but I found myself struggling to articulate my thoughts on the campaign and its message. This is mainly due to the fact that as an adult, I clearly understand the difference between “bossy” and “leader” or the “b-word” and “assertive”, but do children – male or female? Maybe some kids aren’t great leaders (yet), maybe they’re just plain bossy – and my (and others’) initial concern was that this campaign would help take away the child’s accountability for their bad behaviour.

But as I thought about it more, I began to appreciate the campaign and its message. Yes, #BanBossy is a simplistic message, but keep in mind that it’s not directed at adults, it’s for kids, and it’s to facilitate discussion and open up dialogue on how to encourage more girls to become leaders. Further to that, this campaign is taking a stand against the double standard that assertive young girls are labeled bossy (and later in live, worse) while young boys are not. This is hurting the leadership potential of our girls. Sheryl Sandberg and her supporters simply want to end this cycle, so that future generations of men and women are able to and “de-gender” negative attributes such as “domineering,” “pushy,” “bossy” and positive ones such as “assertive,” “passionate” and “leader”.

In your own workplaces, think and observe carefully when you come across feedback that includes the above negative attributes and ask yourself:

Is this negative attribute consistent with overall peer/management feedback?

Is the negative attribute assigned to a woman? Is this a trend within the organization?

Is this negative actually a positive, or could it be, after some behavioural adjustments?

Consider the hypothetical case of a young woman who some co-workers describe as “difficult” because she has extensive experience in her field, is truly passionate about the company, and therefore, has a lot of opinions that sometimes conflict with others’.

Perhaps she could improve her ability to convince and influence, but I wouldn’t necessarily call her difficult if she does a great job and contributes meaningful insight and expertise to whatever project she’s involved in. Especially if she’s respectful and is an otherwise great person. If this is the case, then it could be argued that she’s simply just passionate, assertive, and maybe a little rough around the edges –something that can be improved with proper feedback and coaching.

Bottom-line, incorrectly labeling anyone as bossy, pushy, or worse, can have a devastating impact on not just little girls, but grown women as well, and I applaud Sheryl Sandberg for take steps to change this.

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