I appreciate the #BanBossy campaign by Beyonce and Sheryl Sandberg a great deal. We know the stories of how Sandberg was called ‘bossy’ by her schoolmates while she was younger, and Beyonce is definitely on a campaign to popularize feminism.
I appreciate the spirit behind this message. However, this image and Beyonce’s campaign is making use of the expression “The Boss” as someone who is awesome, cool, in control, and admirable. What we need to get used to is the notion of a woman as **a** boss, not “The Boss,” as if she was Bruce Springsteen. A boss is someone who has power over people, who is a leader, who directs other peoples’ actions, and who makes decisions about hiring and firing. This isn’t what we mean when we say as a compliment that someone “is a boss!” or “did it like a boss!” Instead we’re simply offering a platitude. This is the same meaning that we attach to Beyonce’s statement that she’s “The Boss!”
I have responsibility for the hiring and management of more than 15 people now. I’m a boss. I tell people what to do, and sometimes I’m not popular. I accepted responsibility as a leader, and that means making tough decisions. It’s the part where I direct other people’s actions that makes so many people uncomfortable. That’s the thing Sandberg and Beyonce are trying to make ok, but they’re not coming at the issue directly. Instead, they’re popularizing the removal of the word “bossy” from our lexicon.
The #BanBossy campaign doesn’t tackle the real issue of why women are uncomfortable being bosses. Beyonce writing a blog post or doing an interview in which she explains how she hires and manages her staff both remotely and in person would be a better explanation of actually being a boss. We know Sandberg can handle management; I’d love to see her explain how to direct people’s actions and take ownership of the fact that people sometimes have issues with direction, rather than worrying about the label being applied.
Labels are important. What we call people matters to them and to us. I had a wonderful professor of social and political philosophy when I was at Carroll College doing my undergraduate. His name was Barry Ferst. He made a very specific point of repeating everyone’s names in his class, and working hard to remember how to pronounce them. If people preferred a nickname, he would write it down and remember to call them by their chosen name. When I asked him why he was so careful to pronounce my name “Tare-ah” instead of “Tah-ra”, and for that matter why he bothered to remember everyone’s preferred names in his class, he said to me “It doesn’t hurt me at all to call people what they want to be called, and it makes them happy.” I took that as one of the more important lessons from my academic career.
If women don’t want to be called ‘bossy’, then I’ll avoid that. When you actually **are** a boss, you find you have little time to care if someone is calling you bossy–you’re too busy taking over the world. Show women that the label ‘bossy’ matters less than the act of taking responsibility and leadership. Mentor them and demonstrate what it’s like to make hard choices, to serve a community and your team, and as women accept and seek out leadership roles, the label of “bossy” will fade into much-deserved obscurity.