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A few years back I received an email from a referral I had recently met. This was the first sentence:
I do appreciate your enthusiasm, but it can feel a bit overbearing, to be honest.
First, I was flabbergasted! Then, I searched the online dictionary for the word ‘overbearing’. After that, I was hurt.
In case you’re curious, the synonyms for overbearing are:
- Overly Authoritative
- Cocky Oppressive
In other words, there is no positive context for being ‘overbearing.’ None.
My intention had simply been to follow up, and to not ‘drop the ball’. In response to what I thought was diligence, I was told that I was being bossy. Not too bossy. Bossy.
I didn’t know how to respond to her email, so I did nothing. My instincts told me that this was her ‘stuff’ not mine. But it hurt anyway.
Over and over I mentally reviewed our interactions looking for any morsel that would indicate that I had, indeed, been ‘overbearing’. Inevitably, I went to the place that so many of us women go when we get feedback that we’re not proud of— I went to the place called,
“What did I do wrong?”
Fast forward to the announcement of the launch of the “Ban Bossy” Campaign led by Sheryl Sandberg and the Girl Scouts.
The campaign is aimed at helping people become more aware of, and responsible for, the many insidious ways we deter girls/women from leading.
The “Ban Bossy” campaign will, undoubtedly, seem trivial to anyone who has never been called “bossy” in that tone of voice. The rest of us ‘get it.’
When little girls (and grown women) are called ‘bossy’ it discourages them from leading. Why? Because girls are deep-wired and socialized to be liked and to avoid conflict. Any meaning of the word ‘bossy’ bumps up against our end goal:
BE LIKED. AVOID CONFLICT.
We don’t call little boys ‘bossy’ because they’re ‘supposed’ to lead and, beside the point, they wouldn’t care. Boys tend not to pay attention to whether or not they’re liked and, in fact, they often deliberately seek out conflict (but I’ll leave that for another blog).
Since they were born, I’ve told my children
“I’m NOT bossy, I’m directional. I have great ideas. I’m not bossy, but I am the boss”.
I don’t think they believe me.
As strong and consistent as my core values may be, there is one big society out there (and 7 hours a day at school) telling them that, once again, mommy doesn’t know what she’s talking about.
Actually, I’m good with that.
I want my daughter to grow up being assertive, smart, resilient, self-assured, confident, driven, ambitious, direct, loving and compassionate. I want her to make her best and highest contribution to the world. Always. I want the same for my son.
In ten or so years from now, provided I’ve done a really good job and they’ve been willing if not eager students, they’ll feel this way about themselves and one another.
The problem? Most of the time we don’t even know we’re living the bias and reinforcing the stereotypes.
Hey, I catch myself.
I catch myself fortifying my daughter in ways I don’t my son, knowing that her journey will be more challenging. I catch myself giving her skills that my son doesn’t need because she is Cambodian-American and he is Prussian, and she has a double whammy where he has none.
I catch myself and, on the one hand, I admonish myself for even having had the thought. On the other hand, I applaud myself for even having recognized that I did. I grew up with Archie Bunker, That Girl and My Three Sons. What can I say?
The gender issue is terribly messy.
Once we collectively get that, it will become easier. We’re not there yet.
Perhaps one of the first steps we can take, is to pay attention. It’s hard for any group to get it about the other. Start there.
There are two steps that every single women can take today, if she so desires:
- Be hyper-vigilant about how you speak to yourself.
- Be equally hyper-vigilant about how you think about and address other women.
You know what they say…. it starts at home.
I’d love to hear from you. What does the word ‘bossy’ mean to you? When does it inspire you? When does it squash your spirit? I look forward to reading and responding to your comments below. Tell the truth…. does the voice in your head ever call you “bossy?” Under what circumstances and in what situations? How do you react?
PLEASE SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS in the comments below.
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Nancy D. Solomon, MA Psych is the CEO and Founder of The Leadership Incubator where she helps leaders identify, address and resolve people problems before they become profit problems so everyone can focus on what they were hired to do– INNOVATE AND DRIVE GROWTH.
Known as The Impact Expert, she is a main stage speaker, expert trainer and veteran coach who helps leaders solve key issues related to leadership development, employee engagement, and advancing women.
Nancy has made a difference for such companies as Microsoft, Target, Acura, Westin, Nordstrom & ADP as well as with many passionate individuals.