Bossy Boots

How sexism followed me to the bottom of the world

I’ve been called a lot of things in my life. Strong, unapproachable, kind, particular, funny, high maintenance, low key, social, introverted, healthy, organized, messy, a pushover, decisive, indecisive, thoughtful, smart, blunt, and, most recently, bossy. The fact that some of these could be considered complimentary and others not — and that many contradict with another — is not something that has ever bothered me. However, bossy — all by itself — got to me.

Bossy” is something that we’ve read about often when referring to young girls. I’m far from the first to point out that we should be acknowledging girls’ leadership skills instead of calling them bossy.

However, I’m not a young girl (although I like to think I’m not old either). I’m 33. I’m also a bit shy when meeting new people. I like to sit back to survey the scene while my outgoing friends test the waters. So when I was first getting to know a group of new friends (mostly men) on my dream trip to Antarctica, I was surprised when one of them gave my female roommate and me this label. I couldn’t imagine anything that I could have said or done as a shy newcomer that would have earned me that title. Regardless, it’s entirely possible that something I did or said gave that person this reaction.

The label stuck and I was referred to as “Bossy Boots” a handful of times by several male friends during the voyage, which I often corrected to “Leadership Boots” with a laugh. As any worthwhile friends naturally would, the more I negated it, the more they used it. While it was all intended as good-natured ribbing back and forth, that word still got under my skin. I realized that out of all the things I’ve been called, that’s the only one that I’ve never heard used when speaking about men.

The interesting part to me is that these were well-traveled, well-educated men from various places around the world. Regardless of where they came from, they all appreciated the humor in calling the girls bossy.

The icing on the cake happened near the end of the trip as we were waiting to board our flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires. Our group had been traveling together for 12 days and waiting for hours for our delayed flight, so we were all fairly comfortable with one another.

Someone yelled from the back of the line that they had found a purse and wanted to make sure someone didn’t leave it behind. A male photographer, who seemed impatient after the long wait, yelled back in an annoyed tone, “Unzip it, look in the wallet, and figure out whose it is.”

The immediate response from my male friend who had gifted me my sweet nickname was, “there’s a man who takes charge.”

Then my female friend chimed in with, “so authoritative!”

I looked at them both in exasperation and said, “He gets authoritative and I get bossy!?” They both seemed to realize the absurdity at the same time and laughed uncontrollably. I, too, shared a laugh at the ridiculousness of it.

But when it’s all said and done, that man gets to go on taking charge while I have to fight against stereotypes that diminish my “authority.” I have to watch how I word things in business meetings in ways he never will.

My coworkers and I joke at my office that “words mean things” — and they do. To me, bossy means that inequalities still exist (as if we didn’t already know this). It means that I can exhibit the same traits as my male peers and be seen in a different, negative light because of it.

But here’s the thing, world. I’m not changing for you. I will continue to lead. I will continue to make decisions. I will continue to be blunt when the situation calls for it. So call me names, label me, do what you will. I can take it, but the next generation shouldn’t have to. These are your sisters, your nieces, your daughters. Celebrate the strength in our girls and women so they feel empowered to lead instead of threatened by your labels.