‘I’m not bossy, I’m the boss’: Words that silence and keep women back

By Ayanda Msweli (@Mizz_OG_Noir)

That said, neither banning or reclaiming the word ‘bossy’ will be enough to reverse the biases we have against women in leadership. What is important is awareness of how we view women in leadership and the gender assumptions that are reflected in our language so that we can begin to make the real changes that will see more women in leadership positions. 

Photo credit: Sethembile Msezane

I finished university in November last year and, in preparation for the working world, I received advice from aunts, cousins, friends. These women had reached different levels of the corporate ladder, and they gave me a crash course on office etiquette.

From the perils of inter-office relationships to the dangers of leaving your food in the common fridge (only the brave and the bold would dare), there was one command that resonated with me – develop a thick skin. Indeed, shifting from the cozy nest of varsity to the cutthroat corporate environment is challenging for anyone. I was told to be careful about how I present myself. Simply being intelligent and hardworking doesn’t cut it in the working world.

There are big egos that may not take too kindly to a fresh-out-of-university-20-something-know-it-all. “Especially the women!” I heard them say. I considered myself warned, and braced myself for the onslaught. However, when I started to work in a law firm, I was not met with the hostility that I was expecting.

In fact, I had the privilege of working with two female superiors in the past ten months alone and each experience has been largely positive. Now, I feel uneasy. Aren’t powerful women meant to be ‘bossy’ and ‘bitchy’? Have things changed? Did I not get the memo?

Every now and again, women have to sift through the dusty archives and check up on some of the concerns we have discussed, tackled, fought and overcome in the past and see which battles are still raging on.

One such battle is over the word ‘bossy’, a word that has been used to describe women in positions of authority. It’s almost 2015, and that word, along with ‘pushy’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘difficult’, are continuously used as silencing tools in the usual spaces – the office, at home, the classroom.

One such manifestation of this bossy trope is the ‘Iron Lady’ label which has been bestowed on the first female leaders of the United Kingdom and Liberia respectively, Margaret Thatcher and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. These women leaders have been given these back-handed titles because, even at the highest office, they are expected to be more kind, nurturing, collaborative, and consensus-seeking, while their male counterparts are expected to be assertive, commanding, and direct.

In the South African public sphere, derogatory terms are often levelled at women leaders when they are deemed to get “too big for their boots”. Think of the number of times the likes of Thuli Madonsela, Helen Zille and Mamphele Ramphele have been called ‘Gogo’ in attacks that often speak to personal traits as opposed to the merits of the actions they have taken.

A place that I did not expect to find this kind of derailing language was in the church. A friend of mine who is passionate about her church and is keen to serve it and its members in any way that she can was making a lot of headway and had gotten the attention of some of the higher ranking officials in the church for her proactive stance and efficiency. This did not sit well with some of her peers and soon enough, any suggestion she made for a fundraiser or choir uniforms was met with sneers of “eish, she is so bossy?” or “does she have to be involved in everything? She has serious FOMO.”

Needless to say, her bubble had been burst in the last place she would have expected. She began to volunteer less and less and gradually contented herself with just being an ordinary member of the congregation who took part in extra church activities here and there. Her story is one of many where women get penalised for asserting themselves and exhibiting the same behaviour as men in similar situations do.


To counter this, the ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign was initiated by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg through her non-profit organisation Lean In. The campaign is aimed at encouraging women to lead and realise their full potential to master the realm without being saddled with the restricting weight of being called ‘bossy’. The campaign received a stamp of approval from women who have undoubtedly been labelled bossy at one point or the other in their lives, such as Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, designer Diane von Furstenberg and Beyonce.

Despite its good intentions, the campaign has not gone without criticism. The New Yorkerthe Chicago Tribune, and Slate all agree that banning the word doesn’t get to the root of the problem. Jessica Roy at Time Magazine, for example, stated categorically that, “I Don’t Give a $*%& If You Call Me Bossy”, arguing that women shouldn’t be afraid to be called ‘bossy’ and should take ownership of the word and their authority.

It’s the same line of thought, it has been argued that words such as ‘nigger’ and ‘queer’ that were used in the past (and are still used today) as a derogatory means of identifying various social groups, have been reclaimed by their victims and used as part of a greater struggle to regain their self-confidence and self-worth.

Could it be that the time has come for us, ambitious, hardworking, empowered women to take ownership of a word that has been used to put us down all these years? As one writer argued, if a bossy woman can use her ‘bossy-ness’ to become President, improve the economy, end violence against women, then why should she shy away from it?

That said, neither banning or reclaiming the word ‘bossy’ will be enough to reverse the biases we have against women in leadership. What is important is awareness of how we view women in leadership and the gender assumptions that are reflected in our language so that we can begin to make the real changes that will see more women in leadership positions.

In a Business Insider article, Georgetown University linguist Deborah Tannen gives some advice on what we can do to begin changing our mindsets: “Before calling a woman ‘bossy,’ you think, ‘hold on a minute, would I say that if she were a man in the same position?'” she says. “Because the vast majority of people talking in this way don’t want to hold women back, but it can have an effect.”

While the momentum around the ‘Ban Bossy’ campaign seems to have died down, we need to continue to shine the spotlight on words that have been systematically used to derail or discourage any group of people. However, we need to be careful that we do not get the spotlight in our eyes and fail to see our way forward. In the words of Kelis in her song aptly titled ‘Bossy’,

“You don’t have to love me / You don’t even have to like me

But you will respect me / You know why?

Cause I’m a boss baws!”

  1. I absolutely loved the piece ” I’m not bossy, I’m the boss”. The world at large is still applying double standards to women. Yes the women might be” out of the kitchen” lately but the majority of people haven’t accepted this yet. It often comes out in the statements made by society in general towards women in leadership positions. It is even more appalling when these derogatory statements are made by other women. You then have to ask the question, ” Are women questioning their capacity to lead?”

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