Is banning bossy enough to enact real social change? Celebrity activism and the “Ban Bossy” campaign

Recently celebrity activists such as Beyoncé, Jennifer Garner, and Sheryl Sandberg have thrown their weight behind a campaign to ban the term “bossy” to describe women (, #banbossy). The goal of the campaign is to encourage young women to step into leadership roles and to assert themselves in the classroom and in life. In this blog I highlight the social value of celebrity activism and I highlight important caveats of celebrity activism based on science. In the end I assert that the “Ban Bossy” campaign is a great start to building awareness for the larger issue at hand. 

There is no denying the power and social influence held by celebrities. Marketers know all about the strength of a celebrity endorsement and often jump at the opportunity to utilize the fame and influence of a celebrity to sell more products (Chung, Derdenger, & Srinivasan, 2013). While good for endorsements, the influence of any given celebrity can be employed for far more than selling consumer products. 

In this day and age celebrities can be more than spokespersons, they can be politicians and activists. For example, Bono has used his celebrity to build awareness for and stop the transmission of AIDS with the RED campaign (, Angelina Jolie has used her celebrity to build awareness for refugees and human rights in third-world countries, and many other celebrities have advocated for a variety of charities in order to raise money for important causes ( Research on celebrity activism indicates we tend to listen what to celebrities have to say and view their public involvement as beneficial to society; we view celebrities as a cultural authority (Bell, 2013; Choi & Berger, 2010; Duvall, 2011; Tufekci, 2013). Celebrity activists are important because they utilize their influence to bring to light social issues that would not otherwise be addressed by the media. 

The campaign against “bossy”

The latest social movement that celebrities such as Beyoncé are advocating for is the Ban Bossy campaign (Ban Bossy, 2014; which aims to encourage young women to take on leadership roles and to be more assertive. The campaign has gained a lot of traction in a short amount of time primarily due to the use of celebrity activists and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter (#banbossy). For those who want to learn more about the campaign the website is a great resource. Not only does it include the mission statement of the campaign and facts about the trends in leadership among young women and men but also videos of celebrities who endorse the social movement as well as leadership tips for young women, parents, and teachers. There is no doubt that men and women should receive equal chances to obtain leadership positions, but is the eradication of a single word to describe women really the most potent way to focus on a larger social issue? People make social judgments no matter what – and is “bossy” really such a bad word?

Warmth, competence, and leadership

It is no surprise that people make judgments about others. Social psychological research on social judgments indicates that people are primarily evaluated on two dimensions: warmth and competence (Fiske, Cuddy & Glick 2007).  Warmth is associated with how trustworthy and sincere a person is perceived to be while competence is associated with how intelligent, effective, and even respected a person is (Fiske, Xu, Cuddy, & Glick, 1999). When women are called bossy, there is an implication that they have a lack of warmth, which is typically associated with women. When women are not perceived to be warm as we would usually expect and are instead assertive and self-confident, we may view them as cold and even bossy. The main argument of the Ban Bossy campaign is that young girls can be reluctant to take on leadership roles because they fear that when they assert themselves, others will view them in a negative light; that they will not be seen as warm but as cold and bossy. Advocates of the social movement to ban the word point out that the fear of judgment by other peers keeps young women from asserting themselves leaving leadership positions filled primarily by young boys because they do not fear being called bossy. 

While the terminology used to describe males and females may differ, warmth and competence are not the only things that leaders are judged on. When followers evaluate a leader they take more into account than just gender and personality, they also consider how well the leader represents them.  Social identity research on leadership indicates that when a group is important to a person, they care more that the leader best represents the values of the group (Haslam, Reicher, & Platow, 2011). That is, leaders who embody what the group stands for are perceived as more effective and thus gain more trust and support from other group members (Hogg 2001; Hogg, van Knippenberg, & Rast, 2012; van Knippenberg, 2011). Furthermore, leadership research on women, warmth, and competence has indicated that the women in leadership roles who gain more support from their followers are usually perceived as high in competence but low in warmth, also referred to as cold-but-competent (Gaffney, & Hogg, 2012; Schlehofer, Casad, Bligh, & Grotto, 2011). 

These findings are important because they indicate that women, even those who may be perceived as bossy, can still be perceived as effective leaders and gain the support of their followers and group members. Young women should not fear the word bossy or worry that others will not support them because as long as they represent the group well and are competent in the position they can gain support and trust as a leader. Hence, bossy is not so bad if it means that others respect you and see you as intelligent and effective. Perhaps instead of banning the word, we should encourage young girls to be bossier and not put so much value in what others may call them but to instead strive to be the best leader they can be.

The take-away message

The Ban Bossy campaign and the celebrities who help to further it have done a lot to bring a larger social issue to the forefront. This campaign has begun a greater public dialogue about the imbalance in leadership for young leaders as well as the double standard in language used to describe to young boys and girls. The campaign has not only done a great job at building awareness for the cause but also at providing resources for people so that they may educate themselves and further the movement. 

However, we shouldn’t necessarily focus on a single word but on the bigger picture. The campaign’s slogan is a great way to grab the attention of the general public but we as a society should not get too caught up in the language. Instead, we should continue to encourage young women, and women of all ages, to speak their mind, to assert themselves, and not to be afraid to step into leadership roles; we should encourage young women to be bossy and lead when they want to. The term bossy isn’t the real problem and ridding of the term altogether will not cause real social change.  Instead it is the support and encouragement of the people who advocate for more female leadership, celebrity or civilian, which will keep this social movement afloat.

What do you think? Should we encourage young women to be bossy? Chime in on the conversation and discuss the science behind bossy and leadership on Twitter with #banbossy. Don’t be afraid to speak your mind and share what you think of the campaign.  


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