Banning the 'B' Word

Celebrities, politicians, HR professionals embrace Ban Bossy movement

By Dawn S. Onley Mar 19, 2014

W​hen Debby Carreau, CHRP, was in elementary school, she had an idea: She wanted to put on a neighborhood Christmas play.

“I wanted to choose the role everyone was to play and how it was to unfold,” Carreau recalled. “I had a really clear vision of what I wanted to see, and I communicated it in a way that people were not necessarily used to hearing from little girls. I wasn’t mean; I just hadn’t learned the value of collaboration.”

Instead of being lauded for her leadership, Carreau was labeled “bossy.”

“When I got older, I learned that in order to fit in and have friends, it was better not to stand out,” she added. “I didn’t have the self-confidence to stand out alone because I cared too much about what people thought of me.”

She tried not to be noticed, shied away from opportunities to run for student leadership positions and even attempted not to “look” smart.

Now, Carreau is CEO and founder of HR services firm Inspired HR. She is also part of the Ban Bossy movement to eradicate the “B” word (most often lobbed at girls) and the negative connotations associated with it. Carreau wants other little girls, including her 6-year-old daughter, to embrace their leadership skills and choose to shine.

“When I was recently announced as one of Canada’s most powerful women [by Women’s Executive Network], it was really surreal because I immediately reflected back to my high school, where I was voted most likely to be the next teen Barbie,” Carreau told SHRM Online. “Going from being recognized as a Barbie doll to a powerful influencer in our country was a really important shift for me, and I truly hope other girls can find their way to lean in to their ambitions, whatever they may be. It is OK to be driven, ambitious and smart, and I want girls and boys alike to know that.”

The Society for Human Resource Management member said a mentor’s confidence in her helped her believe in herself and her abilities.

Changing the Rules

When it comes to academic performance, girls rule. But when it comes to scaling the leadership rungs, boys do. Women make up just 19 percent of the U.S. Congress, 5 percent of Fortune 1000 CEOs and 17 percent of corporate boards, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. By middle school, girls are 25 percent less likely than boys to say they like taking the lead, the Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development discovered.

One of the reasons that more women aren’t in leadership positions can be attributed to harmful messages that some received when they were girls like Carreau, according to the Ban Bossy initiative. Spearheaded by Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, Ban Bossy is an all-out media campaign, complete with A-list celebrities, politicians, youth organizations and business leaders encouraging girls to rise above demeaning labels that quell their assertiveness.

The Ban Bossy movement includes an education component that seeks to raise awareness of how the word can stymie girls' developing leadership skills. In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Sandberg questioned why girls are called bossy when boys who demonstrate the same skills are deemed “strong” and “determined.”

“We need to recognize the many ways we systematically discourage leadership in girls from a young age, and instead we need to encourage them,” Sandberg said in a statement. “So the next time you have the urge to call your little girl bossy? Take a deep breath and praise her leadership skills instead.”

Carol Han and Alexandra Weiss, founders of CA Creative, a digital media agency focused on digital brand identity, hope the ban empowers young girls to overcome leadership development limitations so they can grow into women leaders.

“Hopefully, it will encourage more young women to want to take on these powerful positions and help to balance out gender roles in the workplace,” said Han. “Women should feel supported to go after the same positions, build the same businesses and work in the same fields that men are and be admired and respected for that, instead of being called bossy or other devaluing iterations of that word.”

Added Weiss: “Women are still only earning roughly 77 cents on the dollar when stacked against the paychecks of men. Hopefully, this movement will lead to more equality for women in the workplace.”

A Different Approach

But not everyone is supportive. Jessica Carlson, an assistant professor of psychology at Western New England University, thinks the nationwide initiative is misdirected. Carlson has done a great deal of scholarly research on gender in the workplace.

“While I believe the ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign to be well-intentioned, I think it misses the mark regarding girls and women in leadership positions for a few reasons,” she said. “The word ‘bossy’ indicates overly assertive or domineering behavior. One can be assertive without being socially inappropriate.”

She added: “I agree that we need to encourage girls to be assertive in school and women to be assertive in the workplace. However, there is a bigger issue at play here—when girls and women act assertively, they are judged negatively for doing so.”

Carlson said research has shown that when women try to adopt a more assertive or masculine leadership style, they are liked less. “This is because organizations have defined leadership in a masculine way. In order to increase perceptions of competence, women are forced to violate prescriptive gender norms in our society, which creates a frustrating double-bind situation. Instead of banning bossy, I think the solution is to incorporate more stereotypically feminine characteristics into the definition of a leader as well as to modify our stereotypes of girls and women to include traits like assertiveness.”

Yvonne Sell, a director at global management consultancy Hay Group and the leader of its U.K. and Ireland leadership and talent practice, is co-author with Georg Vielmetter of Leadership 2030 (AMACOM, 2014). Sell believes that the age-old alpha-male view of leadership is changing.

“Leadership has been traditionally defined in a one-dimensional way—: leaders lead, and followers follow,” Sell explained. “Individuals either possess leadership qualities or they don’t. In this context, a command-and-control, do-as-I-say, alpha-male style of leadership has become dominant and been accepted as the norm. But this will prove ineffective in an environment transformed by converging trends such as globalization, the environmental crisis, growing individualism and value pluralism, and seismic demographic and technological shifts. Egocentric leadership will no longer be respected or accepted.”

Although Sell supports the Ban Bossy campaign from a personal standpoint, she disagrees that words should be banned.

“We don’t need to ban words. We need to teach young people—and those who will take on leadership roles in the nearer term—how to collaborate, to empathize and to adapt gracefully to change while helping those around them do the same.”

Dawn S. Onley is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C., and a frequent contributor to HR Magazine.


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