Ban Bossy Campaign Addresses Gender Socialization, Encourages Girls to be Leaders

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A young girl sits in her classroom waiting to be assigned to a group. As everyone begins to find their partners, she decides to take control and assign each person in her group an activity. The teacher roams around and hears a student complaining that this girl is being “too bossy.”

While hypothetical in theory, this situation has applied to many young women, including senior Alyson Masciale.

“I had never wanted to voice my opinion because I was afraid that people were going to think I was bossy,” Masciale says. “I think it was more when I was middle school or elementary aged. It’s hard even then because you’re so young you don’t really realize the big picture.”

In order to ameliorate this problem and foster early leadership potential, Facebook COO and Lean In author, Sheryl Sandberg and Girls Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez, created the Ban Bossy Campaign. The campaign launched in early March and advocates for girls to demonstrate leadership and voice their opinions, according to the Ban Bossy website.

While calling someone bossy is insulting, it can also have unintended consequences, says Jennifer Acord, Communications and Advocacy Manager for the Girl Scouts Chesapeake Bay Council.

“When a girl hears ‘don’t be bossy,’ she is less likely to speak up for herself, and that term is very rarely used for boys,” Acord says. “What the Ban Bossy program does is teach girls how to be assertive without being aggressive.”

In our society, women are sent the message that if they’re authoritative, even if they’re in a position of power, then they’re going to be disliked or passed up for promotion or some other negative outcome, says Emily Bonistall, women and gender studies doctorate student.

Bonistall says women in the workplace face the dilemma of appearing aggressive enough to be a competent leader, but not overly aggressive so that way they’re still well liked and seen as a good person.

“The delicate balance where women, even when they’re in positions of power, they do what’s called softening so instead of saying ‘Ashlee don’t do this’ they’ll say ‘Let’s make sure that before the day is done you get this finished’ or ‘I think it would be a good idea if you did whatever,’” Bonistall says. “They sort of stuff in their aggressiveness in order to make it more patchable because in our society we think that’s how women are supposed to be.”

The term bossy, Bonitall says, creates dismissive language towards the recipient and underestimates their power in any situation. This attitude needs to be addressed early so that the dismissive language does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“That’s where dismissive language is important because words like “bossy” can make an impact on a young girl that can affect her leadership over the course of her life,” Bonistall says. “So she’s told on the playground in a pickup game of Basketball that she’s boss, you know maybe she’ll never rise to be the basketball team captain that she would have been because she wants to be liked. And bossy is dismissive so she doesn’t follow that path.”

Acord supported this theory with a Girl Scout study that surveyed eight to seventeen year olds, of whom a third did not want to be leaders. They had a lack of motivation because they didn’t want to be called bossy, they didn’t want to be disliked by their peers, Acord says.

Acord says her daughter has experienced the same situation.

“It’s around the times they get to middle school, girls are less interested in science, girls are less interested in being diverse,” Acord says. “My daughter is in the fifth grade and I see that now, she’s less confident than she was three years ago.”

This confidence gap, as the campaign calls it, occurs when girls stop wanting to be leaders at a young age. Statistics show that between elementary school and high school, girls’ self-esteem drops 3.5 times more than boys,’ according to the Ban Bossy website.

Bonistall will be teaching Men and Women in American Society during the summer and says women are not pushed to be leaders the way men are because of gender socialization which starts from a young age.

“That’s really where this Ban Bossy Campaign kicks in is at that young age to say you can hit girls in college and say ‘you should be leaders, you should be leaders,’ but if they’ve been told for 15 years through gender socialization that women should be one way and men should another way, it’s hard to flip that switch,” Bonistall says.

By targeting young girls, the campaign aims to empower them early and continue leading throughout life.

Bonistall says the word bossy hinders the development of leadership in girls because it implies that qualities like being confident, aggressive and outspoken are bad qualities in a female.

“By telling girls at a very young age that those are bad qualities for a girl to have, what we’re then saying is, ‘so therefore leadership positions are not good for you’ or ‘you’re not capable for those leadership positions because you don’t have those qualities,’” Bonistall says. “It’s really a double bind for young girls who are trying to navigate the tough roads of middle school and all of that type of stuff that goes with growing up and adolescents.”

Ban Bossy is not trying to legally ban the word bossy, Bonistall says. The word is so deeply ingrained in society, that it’d be difficult to reclaim it, she says. Girls don’t need to “ban” or own the word “bossy,” but rather challenge it. One way this can be done, Bonistall says, is by having the celebrities involved in the campaign transform the meaning.

“Somebody who’s as bold and as loved and as badass as Beyoncé, she’s gonna say, ‘I’m not Bossy, I’m the Boss,” Bonistall says. “If there’s anyone who can reclaim that term, it’s probably Beyoncé. She’s sort of on board in the sense that we need to be challenging it.”

Other public figures involved in the campaign include Condoleezza Rice, Jane Lynch and Jennifer Garner. Masciale says their support of the campaign is a good way for people to start seeing more women as leaders.

“What they’re (Ban Bossy campaign) saying is convincing, but I think that’s because it’s coming from such high positions of women,” Masciale says. “But it’s still a problem and we’re still fighting for it.”

The Ban Bossy website offers solutions to this problem for family and teachers. Some activities include a family movie night that teaches parents and grandparents how to analyze their kids’ favorite shows to analyze the messages they are learning, the type of gender roles that are being portrayed and how they see it in their daily life, Bonistall says. The website also has a goal setting activity and gives young girls leadership advice.

The campaign also designed activities to develop communication skills which in turn improves leadership ability, Acord says. In order to resolve conflict the website encourages girls to use “I-Statements,” which address a problem without forcing blame. I-Statements change the conversation from “you did this” to “I feel, because,” Accord says.

Bonistall says the campaign is not solely for females teaching females. There’s a whole section for dads and granddads.

“The whole point of it is that they have to learn about their influence on young girls’ leadership development,” Bonistall says. “It’s great that the campaign is about supporting young girls’ leadership initiative, but that they recognize that it will take both men and women to help change the culture that supports and promotes negative terms like ‘bossy’ for women’s assertiveness.”

Accord, Bonistall and Masciale say there is still much more work to be done and the campaign is just the beginning of rising women leaders.

“It’s going to take more than just young girls being confident, it’s going to take men and women who are grown-ups to change and recognize how their attitudes and their behaviors and their words are affecting their kids,” Bonistall says.

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