Strong women make things happen

My aunts are amazing and strong women.  They are at or near the top of their respective fields– one of them runs a hospital system, the other is a high-level bureaucrat.  They both drop names of politicians that the rest of us just read about.

They’re not necessarily universally liked.  They, like most of the women in my family, have very strong personalities (and well-deserved egos almost commensurate with their abilities).  They tend to be right about things.  They tend to make decisions and to boss people around.  They don’t mince words, and they don’t worry about how other people feel about them.  They worry about results.  I’m sure many people refer to them as bitches behind their backs, even though that characterization would be “leaders” were they born my uncles instead of my aunts.  (My actual uncles are all pretty milquetoast.  Nice guys, except the jerk, but not so much with the ambition.)

It turns out that people like to be told what to do.  It’s hard to make decisions and nobody wants to be held responsible if the wrong decision is made.  A person with a take-charge attitude, some ambition, and enough confidence can go pretty far in life.  Especially if she’s usually right.  (But even if he’s not!)

My partner was wonderful recently at a party.    It was a vegan Canadian Thanksgiving in one of the blue coastal cities.  Full of upper-middle class folk.

There was a little girl there who was bossing around all the other kids.  She was telling them what to do and making up stories and games that they were characters in and telling them what their parts were and so on.  But they didn’t mind.  Most kids seem to like to be told what to do too, contrary to what children’s literature might suggest.

Unfortunately her mom was fretting and fussing and apologizing to anybody who would listen about her little girl’s behavior.  “She always does this,” her mom told DH.

And DH told her that her daughter would grow up to be a strong woman.  And she would change the world for the better.

It’s not always the most likeable people who make changes.  Conformists don’t tend to become leaders– they tend to be the led.

We can push people into quiet, feminine boxes.  We can force them to go against their nature.  We can add doubts and uncertainty.  We can marginalize them and take away any threat of them ever making more than small ripples.  Indoctrinate them into the patriarchy’s whispering campaigns where they reinforce the idea that no woman can do everything, or anything really.  We can break them.

Or we can train them up.  Teach them math and science and medicine and politics and economics and programming and communication and management and everything else under the sun.  Give them the education they need so that they first do no harm, and then can do some good.  Let them know about the problems in the world.  Give them the tools they need to protect themselves, and do our best to change society so they have less to be protected from.  Tell them that the haters are fools, though sometimes fools must be suffered (and ultimately educated, deflected, or manipulated for the greater good).

Let’s stop apologizing for our daughters.  Let’s  encourage them instead.  Let’s help them change the world for the better.

Because strong women make things happen.

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23 Responses to “Strong women make things happen”

  1. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    Ohhhhhhh…….nice! I really like this perspective. My oldest is a bossypants so maybe that’s a good thing =)
    That is also awesome that your husband said that….and he was right. It does make you stop and wonder why women or young girls aren’t expected to be in charge or assertive.

  2. Cloud Says:

    As you’ve witnessed, my oldest tends to be “bossy” (although you are right, her male classmates who exhibit similar behavior are not called bossy). We’ve coached her a little bit on how to handle it when her friends don’t want to go along with her schemes, but we don’t tell her to stop making the schemes. She recently came home from school sad because some older girls in her after care called her bossy. The girls start policing themselves so young. It is sad. We talked about what that word means and why the girls called her that, and I told her she couldn’t make the other kids not call her things, but she could decide whether or not she cared.

    I am not at all sure that I’ll get this right as a mother, because I struggle a lot with imposter syndrome, and being afraid to take career risks because I doubt my abilities. I would very much like to not pass that along to my daughters, but I am sure they will get some of it. I do find that thinking about the example I am setting for my daughters helps to motivate me to be the sort of woman I wish I was and take more career risks.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Your oldest is awesome and is going to go far in life in whatever direction she wants to go.

      It does suck how kids police themselves, but the most popular girls are also bossy… Maybe some sort of competition thing… There can be only one or something. In any case elementary school dynamics don’t tend to mirror the adult world, or at least not any part of the adult world worth taking part in. It gets better.

      And yay for growth mind sets!

  3. scantee Says:

    I’ve been thinking about this recently because I work with a woman who considers herself “bossy” and “strong” but everyone else just thinks she’s mean. She’s certainly very smart but she doesn’t have the savvy to combine that and bossiness into something that people respect. It’s almost as if she’s seen other women do the bossy and strong thing well and has assumed that is the only was to project authority. It’s very tiresome.

    I’m feel like I’m a strong leader but not at all in a bossy way, more in a quiet, reflective and calm way. There really aren’t a lot of good leaders out there, men or women, but I’ve experienced a few different models of leadership that work well and this is the one that fits my personality the best.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Women leaders generally can’t “win” no matter what their style. If we define winning as being well-liked by everyone and not ruffling feathers. Women have a wire-thin line to walk between “mean” and doormat whereas men have a nice wide plank.

      Does this woman get things done? Would you have the same complaints and talk about her the same way behind her back were she a man? Or would you call it authority and make it easier for her to do her business (leading to her not having to be “mean”)? (Randomized controlled trials using paper and video scenarios suggest if she had gender reassignment surgery, her life would be a lot easier.)

      So I say, so what if everyone thinks she’s mean. If she tried the other way, everyone would probably think she was ineffective. That’s not going to be any better, even if society prefers it that way.

      And let’s also make sure we have the right control comparison… sure there’s some “perfect” leader who gets it “just right” whatever gender he or she is, but we shouldn’t believe that women have to get it exactly right whereas men are allowed more leeway to be themselves or have different styles or make mistakes.

      • scantee Says:

        This person goes out of her way to be rude to people to show that she’s in charge (she’s not actually in charge but she wants people to think that she is). That’s different from bossiness or even directness and I don’t think it’s acceptable in a professional context from men or women. Does this help her gets things done? Sometimes it helps her but many more times it hinders her. Her long-term career plan is to be a politician and that is not an arena where you can offend people and then write it off as part of getting the job done (at least not during the getting elected part of the job). The trick with having a bossy work style seems to be having a fallback style you can use when your dominant one isn’t appropriate. This person doesn’t have a fallback work style so she seems to go into every interaction with a bulldozer mentality.

        I do think it’s harder for women to be accepted as leaders but I don’t necessarily equate bossiness with strength. Sometimes it can be an effective technique for certain people in certain contexts but it’s not the only way for women to legitimize their authority.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        We can’t say because we’re not there. However, it is important to be mindful that men and women are treated differently. And that what is perceived as directness in a man is perceived as rudeness in a woman.

        And, because the children’s book “Little Miss Bossy” seems to make this mistake, some people equate being bossy with being rude. They are not the same at all. (Ironically, they bodily force Little Miss Bossy to do things against her will in order to have her stop pointing out the flaws in little men such as Little Mr. Lazy. Our copy has been heavily corrected. Also DC2 peed all over Little Miss Giggles so we threw it away.)

      • scantee Says:

        Absolutely, women are judged more harshly in this regard than men. My point is that I’ve known bossy women that I respect who do great work I just don’t think what made them great was necessarily their bossiness (bossy!=strength). Bossiness can work when it’s supported by other positive qualities but it can also be a hindrance when it’s not. I also don’t want women to feel like the only way to be a leader is to be bossy if that is not a style that they’re comfortable with.

      • scantee Says:

        I should say that I work in a field that is completely dominated by women. None of the leaders in my field, almost all women, are thought of as bitches and they’ve taken different paths to rise to leadership positions. It’s quite a bit different from a typical corporate environment. There are certainly some drawbacks to working almost exclusively with women but I find they are ones I’m able to deal with.

        To tie this together with your sexual harassment post from awhile back: I went on a work trip last month and had to work closely with a man, which is a rare occurrence for me, and he sexually harassed me. First time ever for me! It really made me appreciate how much of a non-issue that is for me in my day-to-day work life.

  4. First Gen American Says:

    I do science camps with girls. (Doing another one next week). They rock…all of them. I am blown away by what these girls are capable of when put In the right environment. Not only do they have the technical aptitude, but they also tend to be generally more perceptive and more outgoing than many of their boy geek peers.

  5. OMDG Says:

    I remember a popular insult among my first grade classmates was, “You think you’re sooooo great.”

    In retrospect the appropriate retort should have been, “And?” Alas, we all fell over ourselves trying to prove that we did not.

    Your take on female bossiness strikes me as a similar thing.

  6. FormerlyBossy Says:

    LOVE this post. Lots to say….

    My pre-k report card stated that I was bossy and it was something that should be corrected (or something to that effect–will look it up tonight when I’m home, very curious to know the exact wording). I wish it hadn’t been–I am still good at giving direction once I have “permission” (specified role, established credibility, etc.), but not so great at grabbing the reigns overall. I am ambitious, and need to make more things happen for myself so as not to feel that I am underperforming my potential.

    My sister is also bossy, and has gotten more so. She is totally rocking it at work, in a setting where the patriarchy isn’t just in plain view–it is often openly hostile. Being strong (and bossy!) is a major asset.

    I do think that it is important to learn to channel the bossiness for good; it’s one thing to direct, another to demand to always get one’s way (especially in social settings). If one must always get one’s way, then one must also accept that one may have a smaller social circle (or at least a circle that doesn’t include other people who like to have a say)!

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think as one gets older one learns more leadership tricks. But it isn’t the desire to tell people what to do that’s the problem, especially when the kids don’t mind being led!

  7. oil_garlic Says:

    All the higher-powered women I’ve known are called bitches behind their backs. However, if you’re too nice and a women, you often can’t climb up very far or if you do, you can’t get much done. I actually like being bossy sometimes but I can tell which friends want me to take charge and which ones get annoyed!

  8. chacha1 Says:

    I am a bossypants, and I support this message. :-)

    For those with young children who are exhibiting the Bossy … what is truly important is to make sure they can back it up. If your child likes to organize things and people, make sure they know how to contextualize, how to strategize, how to delegate, and how to train. (Obviously, employ age-appropriate instruction.)

    There is absolutely no benefit to any child of any gender being encouraged to “take charge” if they do not actually know what they are doing. It’s one thing to do this in a play scenario. But once you are on a school or work team, you had better know how to execute before you start telling other people what to do. If you don’t, you’re just a bully.

    There is not much “training” on how to be a leader until you get to an MBA program. By that time, it’s too late. If a child shows signs of a natural inclination to lead, give them every conceivable tool. Because otherwise they will likely be characterized as, if female, a bitch; and, if male, an asshole.

    One of the necessary tools: tactful but substantive communication. This is in short supply anyway, so more of it is always welcome.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Yes, tools are important. I don’t know if group work is still “in” in school (given NCLB), but when we were in school it was the hot thing to teach in middle-school. Not sure how well it was taught, but I’m pretty good at leading groups, and so is #2, even though she hates it.

      And I don’t know that the MBA program time is too late– we get a lot of 20-somethings at ours and we do a lot of teaching them that group work is more than divide and conquer. (Thankfully this is not my job, since emotions often flare at the beginning.) They’re a lot more polished and less embarrassing after the program than they were starting it.

      [Research shows: The number 1 key to being a leader, wanting to be a leader. Nothing else really matters, including being any good at it. Seriously, most people would rather be told what to do than to tell people what to do. Which is probably how society works.]

      And yes, there’s a difference between leading and being rude. (Or being bossy and being a bully.) In the little girl’s situation, nobody was chafing at being told what to do, and they were happily doing what she said to do, so she must have been managing it pretty well!

      I will note that a woman is going to be called a bitch by some folks no matter what she does, so might as well get something productive done with that label.

    • Liz Says:

      Bossypants! Great book.

  9. MutantSupermodel Says:

    I had to look up “milquetoast” as it is the first time I’ve read it, nice.
    I hated the word bossy growing up. I was always told to stop being so bossy. So I try so hard not to use it, especially with my Daughter. And I try and tell people it’s a good thing when they apologize for their daughter’s bossiness or defiance. I tell them that’s a great thing to see in girls, it’s important.


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