#BanBossy Too Narrow: Let’s Lean In to Help Girls Learn Courage

Confident little school girl with her classmates in the background

Earlier this week, Sheryl Sandberg’s nonprofit, Lean In, together with the Girl Scouts of USA launched a public service campaign called #BanBossy. Celebrities and CEOs are joining the campaign vowing to ban use of the word “bossy,” a label believed to be so painful that fear of receiving it is at the root of girls’ resistance to leadership.

Website materials are excellent

iStock_000010989308SmallThe Ban Bossy website highlights the importance of teaching and practicing leadership skills, and features excellent resources written in a style that is concrete and actionable. The materials are downloadable for use by girls, parents, teachers, managers, and troop leaders, all with the aim of educating, encouraging and practicing leadership. Tips span everything from practicing thinking on your feet, to speaking up in class, to teachers and managers making sure to give girls and women the chance to step up. Girls are also taught the importance of setting goals and stretching beyond their comfort zone. There are a host of activities, games, and exercises that are easy to read and filled with simple graphics and smiling women and girls. The messages  are both practical and sensitive, and can be easily adopted in our parenting, curricula and workplace.

#BanBossy too narrow

While #BanBossy’s promotion of leadership through its educational materials is excellent, the decision to reduce such a laudable leadership campaign to abolishing use of the word bossy is a bit confusing and risks obscuring the point of the campaign.  Sandberg and the campaign materials assert that girls don’t speak up, or have the confidence they need to set goals and stretch for them, out of their fear of being labeled “bossy.” She relies in part on a Girl Scout study conducted by the Girl Scout Research Institute called “Change It Up.”

Girl Scout study finds girls fear social rejection, not just seeming bossy

The summary of the Girl Scout data from the “Change It Up” study confirms girls’ fears of leadership are indeed broader than that of being labeled bossy. The summary states,

“Barriers to leadership are consistent among girls and boys, but girls experience fears and inhibitions about social acceptance more acutely, in the form of stress, fear of talking in front of others, aversion to seeming bossy, and peer pressure.”

In spite of these data, #BanBossy selectively emphasizes girls’ fears of being seen as bossy, a decision that is unexplained and misrepresents the totality of the findings. This narrow focus does a disservice by missing the other root causes of the problem – stress and social anxiety in general.

Teaching courage – turning stress and social anxiety into action – should be the target

The summary of the Girl Scout data makes good clinical sense. Girls who are reticent to speak up, or assert themselves are afraid of judgment in general, and rejection in particular, not simply being called bossy. Sheryl Sandberg rightly suggests that anxiety is at play in girls’ resistance to being assertive, and it is this stress and anxiety in all its forms that needs harnessing. Leaning into their anxiety, putting anxiety into action, and using their stress towards reaching for their goals is what we need to teach girls and women to help them reach their potential. This is about courage, not banning a word. Courage and bravery is what’s needed to lead, that is to take action in spite of our fears. All leaders have it, and it can be taught.

Bossy behavior, not just the label, is a problem

That being said, I agree overall with the message to ban bossy. But my vision would be to ban bossy behavior not simply the label. We neither want our future leaders to be intimidated by labels, nor do we want them to earn such labels. We want them to learn to lead. Bossy isn’t leading. Bossy is bossy, and can be mean. Mean, or “bossy girls,” as my 13 year old daughter describes them, are closer to being bullies than they are leaders. And we know that bullies fundamentally feel insecure, hate themselves for it, and assert themselves over other insecure people as a way of garnering a sense of control and dominance. This is not leadership, this is intimidation, and we expect more in our leaders and want more for and from our girls. Leadership is about vision, conviction, courage and self-esteem, and is diminished by coercion. Bossiness should be banned, but as a behavior, just as bullying should be. It isn’t just the label of bossiness that scares girls away from leadership, it’s their fears of bossy peers that does. Teaching girls to handle bossiness through their own assertiveness is something I support – that’s leadership, and it takes guts. Perhaps this is part of the #BanBossy plan…. I hope so.

Lets agree on the problem to drive an effective solution

The #BanBossy campaign rightly aims to grow girls into leaders, but I believe their noble effort is diminished by its simplistic marketing strategy.  Abolishing a word or a label won’t get it done. Agreeing on the root of the problem is critical to forging the solution that makes sense. I applaud the campaign, and it’s efforts to get us all talking about fostering self esteem and leadership in kids, but this is a broader and deeper issue that deserves more. If anyone can do this, Lean In and The Girl Scouts of the USA can. I hope they will.

Twitter @AliciaHClarkPsy

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD


  1. Robyn Hatcher on March 17, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Thank you for this. I really find the #BanBossy movement sadly misguided. Can you imagine men spending all this time, energy and expense to ban a word that can be construed as derogatory? What we need to be doing is spending more time, energy and resources in training parents and girls to courageously and confidently OWN who they are to the extent that no one word, phrase or assumption is going to deter them from their greatness. I’m frankly embarrassed by this whole movement and the press it’s getting.

    • Alicia H. Clark, PsyD on March 18, 2014 at 6:24 pm

      Thanks Robyn for your comments. I agree we need to help girls and women OWN who they are with courage and confidence. Well said. I hope this attention on the marketing sound bite, and its appropriateness, won’t drown out the message and the substantive ways we all need to address this important issue.

  2. Mike Smith on March 18, 2014 at 3:57 pm

    I agree that the campaign has some great goals, but who ever marketed ‘Ban Bossy’ should be fired. You are right that being bossy is a bigger problem than being called bossy. Banning any word is problematic and trying to protect your child from all evils, even the little ones, is not conducive to growth and preparation for the world they will soon have to battle on their own. The ideas beyond the Ban Bossy aspect are not lost on the silliness of it. My 5 year old grand daughter is very bossy, and I find it charming as we play pretend. If she’s bossy otherwise, she has to be corrected, no matter what you call it.

    Also, having Beyonce involved is ridiculous. Some of her videos are borderline pornogaphic for young girls to see and her husband JayZ uses works like “ho” and “bitch” in his recording company. How can she object to Bossy but not Bitch?

  3. Mike Smith on March 18, 2014 at 4:00 pm

    I’m sorry, I meant to say “The ideas beyond the Ban Bossy aspect ARE lost on the silliness of the #BanBossy title.

    • Alicia H. Clark, PsyD on March 18, 2014 at 6:29 pm

      Thanks Mike for your comments. I too worry that the leadership ideas aren’t getting through the #BanBossy title. Hoping the platform starts to expand…. What I’d really like to hear is more from our role models and leaders how they lead – how they learned to be brave, and manage their social fears, Perhaps the campaign will broaden its focus to include more of this – I sure hope so!