Girl Scouts and Lean In Team Up To "Ban Bossy"

I'm so proud to be a part of the new campaign "Ban Bossy," organized by the Girl Scouts of the USA and I personally would be nowhere without the many take-charge women I love, some of whom I must confess I have called "bossy" over the years. (Sorry mom. Sorry honey.) 

As Sheryl Sandberg and Girl Scouts USA CEO Anna Maria Chavez summarize in their recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, the word pops into our heads when girls and women show leadership qualities. That's not because we're all sexist jerks. It's because we've been trained to think that way, and the word is one way we get that training:
The word "bossy" has carried both a negative and a female connotation for more than a century. The first citation of "bossy" in the Oxford English Dictionary refers to an 1882 article in Harper's Magazine, which declared: "There was a lady manager who was dreadfully bossy." A Google Ngram analysis of digitized books over the past 100 years found that the use of "bossy" to describe women first peaked in the Depression-era 1930s, when popular sentiment held that a woman should not "steal" a job from a man, and reached its highest point in the mid-1970s as the women's movement ramped up and more women entered the workforce.
Most dictionary entries for "bossy" provide a sentence showing its proper use, and nearly all focus on women. Examples range from the Oxford Dictionaries' "bossy, meddling woman" to Urban Dictionary's "She is bossy, and probably has a pair down there to produce all the testosterone." Ngram shows that in 2008 (the most recent year available), the word appeared in books four times more often to refer to females than to males.
Culture, including language, teaches each generation what to value and what to believe. As parents, we have a crucial role to play in helping our children filter the culture in a way that reflects the values we hold. So, if you want your children to believe that women and men can both be leaders, try not to signify through what you say and do that really, little girl, it's kind of annoying when you raise your hand and have ideas and stuff.

As Sandberg and Chavez put it, "How are we supposed to level the playing field for girls and women if we discourage the very traits that get them there?"

Their teams have put together a fun website with tools for girls, parents, teachers, managers, and troop leaders. There's also a highlights section called "Things We Love," and I'm so delighted that my TED talk on "How Movies Teach Manhood" is featured. In fact, the talk has inspired an entire activity for parents!

"Leadership Tips for Parents" (PDF) looks to me like an excellent handbook on how to ban bossy in your household (while cultivating the strong, brave, and compassionate children we want to lead the next generation). Girls Leadership Institute co-founder Rachel Simmons and the Girl Scout Research Institute have compiled 10 tips:
  1. Encourage Girls and Boys Equally to Lead
  2. Be Conscious of the Ways You and She Talk
  3. Make Your Home an Equal Household
  4. Teach Her to Respect Her Feelings
  5. Moms and Grandmoms: Model Assertive Behavior (not a problem in my house)
  6. Dads and Granddads: Know Your Influence
  7. Seize the Power of Organized Sports and Activities
  8. Get Media Literate--Together (hey, this looks familiar)
  9. Let Her Solve Problems on Her Own
  10. Encourage Her to Step Outside Her Comfort Zone
I helped design the movie-watching activity on page 10 that will help you introduce great media criticism into your regular movie nights. Yes, the Bechdel Test figures prominently. 

Note: Please read Alison Bechdel's work for its own brilliance--her legacy goes far beyond this 30-year-old throwaway joke that her friend Liz Wallace actually made up

THAT'S NOT ALL. From pages 15 to 20 are worksheets you can use to facilitate the discussion and charts you can print out and put on your fridge. It sounds like homework, but I think they've designed it so colorfully that it will go down easily. (Plus, it's still basically watching a movie you like and talking about it, pretty much my favorite thing to do in my life.)

If you print all this out and organize your family to do this activity, I promise you two things. First, you will model assertiveness and possibly inspire critical thinking about media for your children's lifetimes. Second, even though it might run through your family's mind, I will not call you "bossy."


  1. Hello,

    I saw one of your talks and looked you up. I created this movie a couple of months ago. You should watch it. It deals with similar issues, but in a totally different way. If you are skeptical about Disney, you will like it.


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