'Bossy': Is this a workplace word to object to?

  • Article by: BONNIE BLODGETT
  • Updated: April 4, 2014 - 7:05 PM

Yes, when it’s applied to women —at least that’s what Sheryl Sandberg (a boss) believes. As for me (a former boss)? I’m not so sure.

But that’s just it. Women do care.

In case you missed it, Sandberg wants “bossy” expunged from everyday discourse. She isn’t seeking to ban bossiness (she cops to being a fairly big boss-pot herself) but to raise awareness that the unflattering adjective is code for traits that we find attractive in men and off-putting in women. Indeed, both men and women use the word as a weapon against the “weaker” sex. Better not be bossy, girl, because if you keep it up you just might get passed over for that promotion.

I agree that we underestimate the power of words to perpetuate simple-minded stereotypes. Gender is complicated. But will banning “bossy” change behavior? I have my doubts.

Sandberg admits she was lucky to have parents who encouraged her grand ambitions. I was lucky, too. My mom sacrificed her career for marriage and hammered into my head that I must not repeat her mistake. Sent to an all-girls school, I was spared the humiliation of boys shouting out the answers in math class and stealing my Hula Hoop on the playground. I had no clue that hard work wasn’t always equitably rewarded.

Yes, I was lucky. Entitled is closer to what I felt, not that I was aware of that, either. As managing editor of an influential business magazine, I was quite the anomaly in the late ’70s and proud to be a woman in a man’s world. I still cringe when I remember my passionate defense of the traditional use of the pronoun “he” instead of the newfangled “he or she,” which offended my finely tuned ear. I was “a word person,” not a woman. Besides, everyone knew that “he” (like “man” and “mankind”) is all-inclusive.

My male colleagues must have marveled at my tortured logic. I wonder if they sensed where it was coming from — that I’d always wanted to be one of the boys and was damned if I was going to let girls into the locker room.

The women’s movement reformed my sexist tendencies. I now cringe when I see slippage. We seem to think it’s OK when adult women are referred to as “girls.” There’s even a TV show by that name. Is the trend a sign of progress (we’re beyond all that)? Again, I’m not sure.

What I do know is that my own management style was the opposite of Sandberg’s. Her campaign is about supporting women who act like men, and I am actually kind of a girlie girl — at least according to a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania last year.

By “girlie” I don’t mean all about hair and makeup. I mean that as a manager I relied more on intuition than aggression. Highly verbal and a tad feisty, I was proficient at multi-tasking but terrible at delegating (except to the guy who managed the budget) and phobic about giving direct orders. Apparently these are classic “female” traits. Bossiness isn’t.

Why is that? The Penn study scanned male and female brains and found relatively little cross talk between the left and right hemispheric regions that control cognition in the male brain. This creates, so the theory goes, less interference when a man is focused on writing a symphony or plotting a whodunit. That the same part of a woman’s brain is throbbing with cross talk may account for characteristics I used to my advantage. Women are not only big talkers (and quicker to argue than men) but we have superior memories and pick up on under-the-radar signals such as tone of voice, facial expression and body language, while men seem to tune this stuff out.

The Penn researchers attribute these differences to evolution. For most of human history, men were tasked with defending the home turf from outside threats — tigers, tornadoes, unpaid bills. Caring for the family was the woman’s job. Our voices were made for quiet speech. Soothing, seductive. Instinct tells us that “shrill” means bossy, and bossy upsets the social order. Moreover, because women are programmed by many millennia of ladling soup and settling squabbles among 2-year-olds, we’re still more vulnerable in situations that require not only strength and coordination but also a degree of insensitivity.

New Yorker staff writer Margaret Talbot wrote in a blog post that Ban Bossy feels a little bossy to her. I think it feels a little defensive, the same emotion that had me up in a bundle about “he or she.” Talbot also noted that “nerds” (a mostly male cohort) rebranded that once derogatory label by demonstrating the benefits, financial and otherwise, of their “monomania” (science-speak for the ability to focus for hours on a math theorem). Thus computer programmers, video game designers and the like changed the nerd word from put-down to praise. Action speaks louder than words in a man’s world.

I have no doubt that empathy and tact, and above all what my former colleagues fondly (I think) referred to as my cheerleader personality, compensated for my deficiencies when it came to planning and organization. At the same time, a pair of pronouns isn’t why women are moving up in the workforce. What’s changed for women is a blend of economics (the two-paycheck family) and laws with real teeth like affirmative action and Title IX.

Those brain diagrams do raise provocative questions around the issue of nature and nurture. Apparently our gender-specific traits kick in as our sex hormones are triggering physical changes. That they’re seemingly programmed bolsters the evolution argument. But if a trait isn’t present at birth, why can’t it also be influenced by early life experience? The brain is plastic, after all. Do boys play with guns (and girls dolls) because of cultural cues or evolution? A spike in sales of toy bow-and-arrow sets to young girls inspired by the film “The Hunger Games” suggests that “nurture” does wield influence.

Some criticized the Penn study because the researchers were only able to watch modern brains in motion. They wonder if the diagramed gender differences would hold true across all racial groups and historical time periods. In a recent New York Times interview, ShaoLan Hsueh, author of a language primer called “Chineasy,” seemed to suggest that they would. In many ancient cultures, men kept multiple wives as property. The Chinese character for “woman” depicts a wife bowing before her husband, and two female figures means “argument.” It’s hardly surprising, says Hsueh, that all these wives competing for the approval of one man had frequent spats. The language itself, she says, “shows gender inequality.” She doesn’t seek to change the characters, though. They will endure, some day provoking only bewilderment at how backward our species once was.

What does all this add up to regarding Ban Bossy? I guess I’m still on the fence. But I’ll continue to scrupulously observe the “he or she” rule, except when I can write around it with “they.”

 

Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at bonnie@gardenletter.com.

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