The Problem Isn't the Word 'Bossy'—It's Leaders Who Abuse Their Power

Maybe the problem isn't just that we call women "bossy" too much; maybe the problem is that we let men get away with behavior which we should call "bossy," or something worse.


Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scout CEO Anna Maria Chávez took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal earlier this week to call for a ban on the word "bossy." They argue that the word is overwhelmingly used in a gendered way—it's directed at girls, in order to stigmatize them for being "assertive, confident and opinionated"—qualities for which boys are praised.

I think that Sandberg and Chávez are basically correct on the way the term is used for girls. The question they don't address, though, is whether boys deserve that praise. When is it good to be assertive, confident and opinionated? Are there some situations in which this behavior is just plain awful? Maybe the problem isn't just that we call women "bossy" too much; maybe the problem is that we let men get away with behavior which we should call "bossy," or something worse.

We do occasionally call men something worse. Guys who are abusive are referred to as "assholes" or "jerks"—words which connote a real abuse of power, rather than the diminutive, condescending "bossy." Terms like "asshole," then, are the other side of praising guys for assertiveness—men's power, whether for good or ill, is taken seriously, while women's is diminished or condescended to. Sandberg and Chávez are right that women's power should be respected as men's is—but their enthusiastic take on empowerment doesn't leave a lot of room to question instances in which power, or bossiness, can be bad.

Here's one example that's been in the news recently: the behavior of New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Christie has had a long-standing reputation as  "a hands-on, take-charge kind of guy," to quote one laudatory Daily Beast profile from 2011. An article from the New Jersey Star Ledger added that labels like "Straight talk. No nonsense. Tough guy…are practically clichés when talking about Gov. Chris Christie." You could substitute in there Sandberg and Chávez's "assertive, confident, and opinionated." Christie would probably be called "bossy" if he were a girl; as it is, he's just a guy doing that awesome thing guys do.

That awesome thing being, as it turns out, quite unpleasant. Even before his most recent scandals, it was clear that for Christie, "take-charge" and "spout abuse" were often more synonymous than not. In July 2012 he called a reporter "stupid" and "an idiot" at a press conference; nor has that been the only incident.

Of course, more recently, evidence has appeared indicating that Christie's staff were involved in closing lanes of the George Washington Bridge, apparently to retaliate against the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for failing to support Christie's re-election bid. The governor himself denies any involvement, claiming that he wasn't really as take-charge as all that. But the suspicion remains that his praiseworthy assertive personality translated in this instance into thuggish abuse of power—or, if you prefer, into mean-spirited bossiness. Yet, for all the invective hurled in Christie's direction, few seem to have applied the "bossy" label to him.

As another example, turn to the late Walmart owner Sam Walton. Walton's hands-on approach in the early days of Walmart involved concerted, ingenious, bitter efforts to get around the Federal minimum wage, which was first extended to retail workers in 1965. Harold Meyerson at the American Prospect explains that when the minimum wage was applied to his stores...

Walton was furious. The mechanization of agriculture had finally reached the backwaters of the Ozark Plateau, where he was opening one store after another. The men and women who had formerly worked on small farms suddenly found themselves redundant, and he could scoop them up for a song, as little as 50 cents an hour. Now the goddamn federal government was telling him he had to pay his workers the $1.15 hourly minimum. Walton's response was to divide up his stores into individual companies whose revenues didn't exceed the $250,000 threshold. Eventually, though, a federal court ruled that this was simply a scheme to avoid paying the minimum wage, and he was ordered to pay his workers the accumulated sums he owed them, plus a double-time penalty thrown in for good measure.

Wal-Mart cut the checks, but Walton also summoned the employees at a major cluster of his stores to a meeting. "I'll fire anyone who cashes the check," he told them.

Presumably BusinessWeek wasn't thinking of just this anecdote when they praised Walton's management style. But that's perhaps the point. Male bossiness is natural and normal and unstigmatized. You just cheer it and move on, without looking at the details. Not so for women, as Sandberg and Chávez argue.

None of this is to say that men make particularly bad bosses, nor to argue that all men are bossy and need to be called out. Rather, the point is that traits like assertiveness and confidence and opinionatedness which Sandberg and Chávez praise also have downsides. The anti-bossy campaigners want to make these stereotypically male characteristics available to women managers too, so women can move on up through the boardrooms. That's a worthy goal.

But it's important to remember too that there are a lot of people who aren't in that boardroom—folks like Sam Walton's employees working at below minimum wage, or the people on the George Washington Bridge trying to get their kids to school. For them, the assertive manipulation of power isn't an opportunity; it's a threat. And since we still live in an unequal world, those people outside the boardroom, those people who are threatened and vulnerable to the micromanagement of bullies in suits, are disproportionately going to be women. That's maybe something to think about before glorifying bossiness, or assertiveness, or whatever you'd like to call it, in either men or women.