16 May 2014

When The Boss Turns Out To Be Bossy

Let me say at the outset that I am not a fan of the "ban bossy" movement. I think it's a gimmick, and while it does open up some discussion as to how we use our vocabulary in gender-biased ways, it stigmatizes a useful word for which, sometimes, there is no adequate substitute. Now, I'm afraid to say it, even though I wish I could without being instantly judged.


Much has been made of the recent dismissal of Jill Abramson from the helm of the New York Times. According to reasonably credible reports, she was dismissed for her brusque, abrasive manner (what might have been called, until recently, bossiness). Some people have said that she may also have upset some higher-ups by complaining about her compensation, but I don't have the facts on that, so I'm going to focus here on the bossy thing.

I've followed the story fairly closely, because I am interested, as you know, in issues related to women in the workplace. I find it fascinating and more than a little disturbing that the executive editor of a huge, big-city newspaper would be dismissed for brusqueness. In my mind, the cartoonish stereotype of a newspaper editor sits hunched over at a desk, behind a towering pile of paper, with a stinky cigar and a permanent sneer. A nasty, abrasive, brusque attitude is essential equipment for the job.

If you're a man.

Because, let's face it, a man who is brusque in the workplace is perceived as talented, ambitious, confident, and competent. Abrasiveness adds to the image: he doesn't have time for nonsense. He's not here to be your friend or mentor. Things need to get done. He doesn't suffer fools gladly. When you are working for him, you'd better do a good job, or heads will roll. I can't tell you how many nasty, brusque men I have worked for. Everyone knew they were nasty and brusque, and if you were new and your coworkers liked you, they might warn you before you headed off to his office: He's really mean. Don't take it personally. He's like that to everyone. Come back after he yells at you and we'll get a cup of coffee so you can have a moment to de-stress.

A man who is kind, gentle, and nurturing might find a path to success in the office, but he doesn't inspire the kind of awe and trembling fear that his meaner colleagues use to get the job done - fast and efficiently.

A female boss, however, is expected to be different. She is supposed to be a role model to other women, to take them under her wing and be a mentor to them, or at least a good example of what's possible for them someday. She is kind and understanding. She's an expert on work-life balance. (When did you ever hear a man described as having really perfected his work-life balance?) She had to claw her way to the top, but she's expected to drop a rope ladder for those below her, so they can get there more easily than she did.

If she's not like that, gentle, accommodating, and helpful in every way, we have a full vocabulary to describe her that we would not use to describe our male bosses. She's a bitch. She's an emasculating maneater. She hates men. She thinks women should undergo the same hazing that she underwent. She's not interested in helping anyone but herself. She's - yes - bossy.

The problem is that you often need to be bossy - abrasive, brusque, intimidating, decisive - in order to succeed in a fast-paced workplace like a newsroom. But if you're a woman, you're not allowed to be that way. Being bossy is such a negative trait in women that a huge social media movement has sought to ban the use of the word itself. Call a woman anything but bossy! Call her a leader! Call her creative and inspiring! Call her gentle and nurturing, demanding and authoritative, but don't ever, ever call her bossy.

And if she turns out to be bossy, you need to let her go. Because we can't have that. The mean executive editor with the cigar and the snarl is by definition a man, because women can't snarl. Or be mean. It just doesn't fit into our paradigm.

I think it's time for the paradigm to change. We can't equip women for leadership, and expect them to achieve the same things men achieve, if we frown on them when they behave in exactly the same way their male colleagues behave. It would be nice if everyone could be sweet and nurturing all the time, but we all know that's not how the world works. If a job requires brusqueness or a bit of unpleasantness from time to time, we have to allow people to be that way, without regard to their gender. Let's let the boss be bossy. The world will be a fairer place if we do.

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