Embracing ‘Bossy’

A few weeks ago I presented the keynote speech to the University of Oklahoma Society of Women Engineers’ Collegiate Section. Their theme this year was “Bossy: Be the Boss”, a take off from Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In effort to Ban Bossy. My speech follows, I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing and presenting it.

Excited and proud to be selected as your keynote speaker, I did what most of us do when our lives take an unexpected turn, I posted about it on Facebook. It wasn’t long before a friend ‘fessed up to calling her granddaughter ‘Miss Bossy Pants’ and commented she needed to stop doing that. Without knowing the details of how she used the term, I assumed it was not in a positive light.

To tell you the truth, when Sarah extended the offer to speak tonight and told me the theme, I had to really think: when was I actually labeled ‘Bossy’. The other ‘b’ word, certainly over the course of my life, many times, but ‘Bossy’?

I figured out it was my mother who was the first person to call me Bossy. It was during times when a decision was needed and since no one appeared to me to be making one, I’d step up and do it for them. Quit being so bossy, she’d say. Maybe it had to do with being the first born for I don’t remember my younger sister ever having the bossy tag affixed to her.

My cousin set me straight years later. I’d had my first child and two months later, my grandmother died. She lived in another state and so my husband, infant and I flew in for the funeral and stayed in my aunt’s house. Amidst the reuniting crowd of cousins, aunts, uncles, their kids, other friends and distant relatives, I struggled to prepare my son’s formula so he wouldn’t starve. Back then doctors convinced us to boil the bottles and all the other accessories. It was an involved task on a good day at home, the kind that takes over the kitchen. Traveling like I was for the first time since his birth, it seemed near impossible.

So while I sweated and fussed and did the tasks necessary amid all of the crowd and noise, my cousin laughed at my antics. She said she would watch me in awe when I managed to coordinate a group activity for adults and yet here was a 2-month-old baby putting me to my knees. She never saw me as bossy. She saw me as an organizer, and a leader. She also saw me as helpless when it came to the baby.

One time my husband was paying for gas, standing at a window waiting to sign his credit card. Another man stood behind him and overheard his last name, Eckstein. The man asked him if he was my husband, we lived in a very small town. He said yes. The other man explained he worked at the same plant as I did, followed by ‘boy, I sure feel sorry for you.’ Of course he implied a lot of things in that statement, bossy being one of them.

The fact that I’m able to recall these vignettes, tells me the impact that bossy made on my life. It also reminds me how maybe, just maybe, my mother calling me bossy stirred a passion in me to persevere and lead as my cousin had noted. I embraced it even though the guy at work looked at me differently.

Throwing back to the 80’s I remember a fellow female engineer had a poster which compared male traits to female traits: He has leadership skills, she’s territorial, he’s assertive, she’s aggressive, he’s confident, she’s bossy. The list was quite long. We’d laugh at it then but it still hurts to see we’re fighting these stereotypes 30 years later.

Robin Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkley, stated in a 2014 Huffington Post article: “Bossy” per se is not the problem: the problem is that we still see power and authority as male prerogatives, and women who aspire to them as unwomanly, unlikeable, and bad. The real task is to change the world, not the word.

Dictionary.com defines bossy as domineering and autocratic followed by its use in a sentence: She’s very bossy, a take-charge gal (Attributed to the 1880s+). The words that indicate leadership didn’t make this dictionary.

How can you lead without being perceived as overbearing? What are the keys to adding value to your company, your employees, and your co-workers without being labeled domineering? I’ve got a few ideas.

Challenge yourself – I’ve judged a few projects here at OU and it’s very noticeable that the boys present most of the technical stuff while the girls hang back. The engineering school curriculum is built upon projects whereas in my days at OU it was solely based on lectures and book learning. Actively participate; take on tasks that scare you; Embrace challenges, persist despite obstacles.

I graduated with a Mechanical engineering degree. Imagine my delight when a co-worker asked me if I’d like to transfer jobs from my current base in Alabama to Oklahoma, it meant a return to my home state to be near my parents and my children’s grandparents. I was ecstatic. Then he said I’d be performing software test.

My heart dropped. Software? What an unknown that was to me. My experience to that point was limited to piping, pumps, and hardware. We didn’t even have our own desktop computers back then. I took the required Fortran class years ago and still have nightmares over that. He assured me I would excel so I took a leap of faith. Guess what happened? My peers awarded me with a custom t-shirt commemorating my leadership in being the best tester on the program. I was successful because of that friend’s encouragement and my own curiosity to see if I could discover what he already saw in me.

See your efforts as a path to mastering skills. You may fail, you will make mistakes, and you will learn. Everyone doesn’t have constant success although it may seem like it. Success is a series of failures and triumphs blended with tenacity.

Be inspired by other women’s successes. Collaborate instead of competing with one another. Help each other.

This can be a hard one. I think on some levels we are programmed to only help ourselves out and to be jealous of others’ successes. A fellow engineer, a friend, a co-worker is successful on their projects. Celebrate it, ask and think about why she was successful.

Too many times we as women have a tendency to down trod on other women. When you catch yourself being critical, stop and think. Wouldn’t you want others to celebrate you?

Stop apologizing – This drives me nuts more than anything with women. I’ve worked with several female co-workers who regularly end emails in which an opinion is stated with something like ‘maybe I’m missing something or I could just be way off base’. Be assertive; if you have an opinion or need action, state it. ‘Please provide me with…’ is more assertive. ‘Do you think we need to do…’ is asking permission.

Ask for help – seek out mentors, if someone offers to mentor you, accept the offer. They probably see more in you than you do yourself. A good mentor can be brutally honest with you. After I botched a presentation that I felt I was well prepared for, my mentor’s first comment was ‘you really screwed that up’. He was right; I had more work to do.

Volunteer – leadership development can start within your campus clubs, sports organizations or civic community service. Volunteer for projects at work. See a need and take charge. Offer to lead a project, present ideas to the board of a non-profit, the more exposure you have speaking in front of different types of people, the more your confidence will soar.

It’s not easy to speak up, but it is definitely worth it. With practice, you will learn when to speak up. Don’t worry about leaving anything out. How many times have you said ‘I wished I’d have said this instead of that’? I’m sure tonight I’ll go thru that exercise in my head about this speech. If you forget something follow up with a communication later.

Learn how to ask questions. You know asking demanding questions doesn’t work on you, so don’t do it to others. Another mentor of mine had some sage advice: always ask questions that begin with ‘how’ and ‘what’. They diffuse any kind of hostility and most importantly you make people think. How will your idea work? What will be the impact?

It takes practice, determination and courage to become comfortable speaking up and taking charge and letting your voice be heard. I hope these tips inspire you to be the best you can be. Think back to your high school senior self. You’ve come a long way already, haven’t you?

Urban Dictionary has a slightly different take on Bossy: in addition to the traditional uses of mean, annoying and that other ‘b’ word, site users have added classier definitions: Assertive, a natural leader, the ultimate cool. I’ve known some of you for a few years now, watching you grow and mature into fantastic young women and engineers. You have the tools you need to be the ultimate cool.

And finally: Be kind. Always. Embrace ‘Bossy’; thank people who recognize your leadership, even if they call you ‘Bossy’ while doing it.

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About stemzandroses

I'm an engineer and writer with a built-in need to share my nearly 40 years of experience working in a male-dominated field with the rest of the world.
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