Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has decided she doesn't like the word "bossy."
Last month, she and other prominent women, like Condoleezza Rice and Beyonce, collaborated to launch Ban Bossy, a campaign that claims the word disproportionately describes young women, damaging their confidence and desire to pursue leadership positions.
"When a little boy asserts himself, he's called a 'leader.' Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded 'bossy,'" the website states.
While Sandberg's endeavor brings up worthwhile points about sexism and the lack of powerful women in the world, it has its haters. Some question the necessity of eradicating a word and even the campaign's overall effect on feminism. Others wonder if people truly call women "bossy" more often than men. Recently, libertarian feminist Cathy Young, writing for RealClearPolitics, called the ban a "bad remedy for a fictional problem."
Young's critique addresses some noticeable holes in the #banbossy logic, such as dubious research. But she swings and misses in one area: the gendered use of "bossy." Citing Google's analytics, she lists examples in which the word "bossy" describes both men and women. Further analysis, however, supports Sandberg's claim that women are called "bossy" much more frequently than men.
On his blog, Nic Subtirelu, a third year Ph.D. student in applied linguistics at Georgia State University, expanded upon Young's tactics, searching Google for even more gendered phrases. He found that "bossy" refers to women about 1.5 times more frequently than men. The first chart below shows Young's search, and the second chart shows Subtirelu's.
These search methods are hardly an exact science though. Since different combinations of words could easily shift the findings, Subtirelu moved on to other techniques.
In further analyses, he searched Google's Ngram viewer, which shows the frequency of phrases in Google books. He also considered collocation, the idea that certain words have a higher probability of existing near other words. Both demonstrated, once again, that "bossy" describes women more often than men.
"Language isn't necessarily completely random. Certain words tend to co-occur with other words. So if we ask the corpus ... we're actually looking across this astronomical variability [in English]. And we're taking them all into consideration as opposed to picking certain ones [like Google searches]," he told Business Insider.
Still, these methods have their flaws. Google can only pick up on set phrases, not the context. For example, someone could say "you're being bossy" about a man or a woman. To remedy that, Subtirelu used the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a database of the entire English language, to determine all the instances of "bossy" as an adjective. He then read them for interpretation.
His initial search yielded about 400 results. And after removing outliers (like a man named Mike Bossy), 101 examples remained — an acceptable, albeit small, sample size. He found that "bossy" describes women and girls three times as often as men and boys, shown in the graph below. (You can read Subtirelu's full post here.)
On top of that, corpora actually tend to mention women less than men. For example, the Corpus of Contemporary American English lists "he" 3,304,537 times, while “she” only 1,703,886 times, according to Subtirelu. In that case, three times as likely could even underestimate the rate that "bossy" refers to women.
Without much doubt, "bossy" is a gendered word. The data supports it. But in reality, that means little for the debate about banning its use.
"You could make an argument that any division in language that separates gender inherently reflects this ideology of sexism. Whether that's a problem or not is another question," Subtirelu said.
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