A red corduroy skirt set me apart from my third-grade classmates on my first day of school in Brookings, South Dakota. It was the mid-1980s, and I had just returned to the Midwest following my father’s year-long teaching sabbatical in Arizona. While South Dakota was familiar to me, my new town, and thus my new school, was not. As most 8-year-old children would, I desperately wanted to fit in with my new classmates. I had an inkling I should not wear the red corduroy skirt on my first day of school—or ever—but my Southern mother insisted it was the perfect choice. My anxieties were confirmed when I walked into my school and saw nothing but jeans. The other kids were kind and didn’t say anything about my dressy attire.
Fast forward a few weeks—and several skirts—later, I had managed to make some new friends. A small group of girls and I were playing the clapping game during recess. Excited about having something to contribute, I loudly exclaimed, “I have a new one! I learned it at my last school!” The girls froze, looked at each other, and looked at me. Then I heard my new friend Rebecca whisper to another little girl, “I don’t know if we like her. She is … bossy.” Bossy. My heart began racing because I knew with absolute certainty that “bossy” was a label that would isolate me. I immediately feared I would be ostracized, and in that moment, I told myself, “Laura, don’t blurt out your ideas.”
That playground experience was not unique to me. Georgetown University linguistics professor Dr. Deborah Tannen explains that girls tend to play collaboratively in small groups and build rapport through conversations, trusting each other with their precious secrets. According to Tannen, girls learn to focus on areas in which they are all the same and downplay ideas that one girl knows more than any of her female peers. Conversely, little boys play “King of the Hill” and other leadership games in much larger groups, with one or several boys viewed as the leaders. Boys with elevated status are expected to tout rather than downplay their positions, according to Tannen. When talking to one another, boys often try to outmaneuver each other to establish dominance. For example, if one boy brags about a trip to the state fair, another boy might boast about his trip to Disneyland, whether or not he actually went to Disneyland.
Tannen explains that these childhood play patterns significantly shape adult behavior in the workplace. Throughout my professional career, I have observed brilliant women soften their messages in professional settings. I have done the same. Instead of simply announcing executive decisions, we usually seek the opinions of our colleagues to promote the appearance of consensus. Instinctually, we want to project a feeling of agreement so that we do not appear to be too aggressive, or “bossy.” To be clear, I fully believe in the power of collaboration, but I also believe there is a place for executive decisions and claiming one’s idea as one’s own, without feeling guilty. When sharing decisions or concepts, a woman commonly uses the pronoun “we” instead of “I,” even when she alone crafted the idea.
A few years ago, my CEO complimented my new marketing initiative. While a lot of my work was collaborative, this particular project was not. I immediately responded, “Oh, well, thank you, but it was a group effort.” This woman was (and is) incredibly sharp. She responded, “Who helped you?” Long pause. I answered, “My…brain?” I had immediately said, “group effort” without even thinking. It was as if I was on auto-pilot. Reflecting on it later, I realized how uncomfortable I was at the thought of claiming that idea as my own.
It is not always easy for women to articulate their ideas without fear of judgment or the repercussions of an aggressive reputation. I was fortunate enough to grow up with the positive influence of two strong grandmothers. Vivian, my grandmother who was raised in Monroe, consistently inquired about my progress in school. A schoolteacher herself, she always asked one question: “Are you raising your hand in class?” She was encouraging me to lean-in, to claim my place.
Learn from mid-1980s Laura. Embrace the word “bossy” and recognize the label for what it is: a nod to your leadership skills. Claim your ideas without the guilt. Speak without apology. Wear the red corduroy skirt.
Originally published in Bayou Life Magazine.