I've been called bossy.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg looks on before speaking in conversation with Salesforce chairman and CEO Marc Benioff at the 2013 Dreamforce conference on November 20, 2013 in San Francisco, California.

I’ve definitely been called bossy.

I’m a first child, an older sister to three half-brothers, the kind of sibling who made her brother complete concocted ‘challenges’ to win badges (and my approval). Climb a tree, run around the block under a certain amount of time, etc.

I was definitely a smart-ass. And probably a little bit of a showoff.

Then, like most girls, I entered the confusing world of puberty, intra-girl competition, and the messages society sends your way growing up: Be pretty. Be thin. Get boys to like you. Don’t scare them or you won’t be popular.

But, because of a strong mother and excellent teachers, the messages were also: Get good grades. Be independent. Stay true to yourself. Stand up for what you believe in.

Which brings me to Sheryl Sandberg’s Ban Bossy campaign, which already has celebrity support from people as inspiring as Beyoncé. And if you don’t think girls adore her, watch this video of her surprising kids at a Harlem school:

The idea is that bossy is a dog-whistle word, gendered to imply that women shouldn’t be leaders or people who speak out. That the same thing we value in men is considered irritating from a woman.

Language is vital to who we are, and how we make our way in the workplace and in the world.

But over-focus on language can obscure some of the mechanics of other aspects of prejudice or subtle discrimination. For example, what’s the best way to hire and mentor young women? How do you ask for a raise?

BanBossy.com, to its credit, has tips for employers, parents and teachers. And it’s opening a conversation about how characterizing a girl’s behavior in puberty can affect her development when she becomes part of the workforce.

But by banding together to ban words, do we run the risk of letting language have too much power?

About the author

Lizzie O'Leary is the new host of Marketplace Weekend.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...