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Are We Bossy?

A look at equality, inspired by International Women’s Day 2017

by Claire Law

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To encourage us to reflect on how the use of language affects gender equality.

Preparation and materials


  1. Show Slide 1.

    Read out the scenario on the slide: ‘A man and his son were in a car accident. The man died on the way to the hospital, but the boy was rushed into the operating theatre. The surgeon said, “I can’t operate, that’s my son!”’

    Ask the students to consider how this is possible and allow for some thinking time.

    Ask for possible answers from the students. They may get the correct answer: the surgeon is a woman, the boy’s mother! Alternatively, some students might assume that the surgeon is a man, causing some confusion over who the biological dad is.

    Explain that, for many people, the simple solution that the surgeon is a woman is not the first answer they come up with

  2. This puzzle helps to illustrate how often the language we use is not gender-neutral. By that, we mean that for many people, many words have either a male or female connotation. Explain that you are going to list several professions and you would like the students to think about whether their immediate reaction is to see the role as ‘male’ or ‘female’.

    Read out the following list, pausing after each word:

    - nurse
    - firefighter
    - Formula One racing car driver
    - doctor
    - beautician

    Suggest to the students that most of us have preconceived ideas about which jobs are typically for men or women. Ask the students whether this really matters.

    You may wish to listen to a range of responses.

  3. Show Slide 2.

    International Women’s Day has been held every year on 8 March since 1913. It aims to highlight the issue of stereotypes and seeks to challenge the way in which we use language. The aim of holding this day is also to seek to work for greater equality, or parity, between men and women.

    Show Slide 3.

    The word ‘parity’ means ‘the state or condition of being equal, especially regarding status or pay’. In many parts of the world, there is not equal pay or status between males and females. Today, I would like us to think about how the way we use language can help towards parity, or take us further away from parity for men and women

  4. Show Slide 4.

    Let’s think about the word ‘assertive’. Is this a word that we use most often for men or for women? What about the word ‘leader’? What about the word ‘bossy’?

  5. Show Slide 5.

    As we can see from this graph, studies have shown that, in the media, the word ‘bossy’ is used far more often to describe females than males. A girl who shows leadership skills or is assertive is more often described as ‘bossy’. This word sounds negative. It has been shown that people who are given the label ‘bossy’ are less successful in business, whereas people who are called ‘assertive’ earn more and are more successful in their career. So do ‘bossy’ and ‘assertive’ mean the same thing?

  6. Show Slide 6.

    In 2014, the Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, launched a campaign called Ban Bossy. The campaign website states, ‘When a little boy asserts himself, hes called a “leader”. Yet when a little girl does the same, she risks being branded “bossy”.’ Sandberg’s own experience was that being given the label ‘bossy’ meant that her teachers and peers had a negative attitude to her that could have held her back from success. Make the point that this is Sandberg’s opinion and ask the students to consider what their thoughts are regarding this topic.

  7. We need to consider if it is enough simply to change the language we use to help us achieve more equality and parity between males and females. Surely we need to change more than our language: we need to consider our attitudes and values.

  8. Show Slide 7.

    It is our underlying attitudes and values that affect the behaviour we show. The slide suggests that our motives, ethics and beliefs affect our values, standards and judgements. These attitudes in turn affect our behaviour. A bit like an iceberg, a lot of how we behave or speak (the things other people can SEE about us) is heavily influenced by the hidden beliefs, ideas and attitudes we hold beneath the surface. Sometimes, these things are not easy for us to see ourselves!

Time for reflection

Today, let’s reflect on our beliefs, ideas and attitudes towards equality.

Show Slide 8.

The Bible teaches us that men and women are both equally important to God.

Slowly read the two quotations on the slide:

- ‘God shows no favourites’ (Romans 2.11)
- ‘In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1.27)

Show Slide 9.

The Qur’an also teaches us that men and women are both equally important to God.

Slowly read the quotation on the slide:

- ‘Be it man or woman; each of you is equal to the other’ (the Qur’an 3.195) 

Show Slide 10.

As we think about International Women’s Day, let us pause for a moment to consider what we can do today to help to achieve greater parity and equality.

Let us reflect upon what our beliefs, attitudes and ideas about equality actually are.

Can we put into practice behaviours that will help to make our world a fairer, more equal place?

Dear God,
We acknowledge that there is unfairness in our world.
You have created a world where you have made both male and female as equal.
Help us today to mark International Women’s Day by making one small step towards greater fairness and parity.
Help us today to be mindful of the words we use.
Help us to consider not only our words, but also our underlying beliefs and attitudes.

Help our attitudes to be loving, kind and fair.

Publication date: March 2017   (Vol.19 No.3)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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